Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell / *****

black_swan_greenAnd like that, I’ve read every book David Mitchell has published so far, and I have to wait for his next book with bated breath. And while I’m a bit heartbroken that I have no more new Mitchell to read, I’m somewhat glad I ended with Black Swan Green, which feels like Mitchell’s most personal book, and turns a coming-of-age slice of life in 1980’s Britain into something incredible. In other words, just another masterpiece for one of the finest authors alive today.

Like most of Mitchell’s books, Black Swan Green is composed of individual vignettes that combine to make something larger. But while many of Mitchell’s novels consist of multiple narrators, allowing him to throw his voice (narratively speaking), Black Swan Green is entirely told from the perspective of Jason Taylor, a 13-year-old boy from Worcestershire, England. It follows Jason over the course of a single year – specifically, from January 1982 to January 1983 – as he deals with bullies at school, his stammering problem, the departure of his older sister for school, fights at home, and his own desire to be something other than the typical Worcestershire boy. In other words, Black Swan Green is a typical coming-of-age story in so many ways…and yet, it feels like so little else out there, thanks in no small part to Mitchell’s rich voice. While he may be confining himself to a single narrator this time, none of that detracts from the beauty of his story, which never steps outside of its young perspective to comment on itself, instead letting the reader make the jumps for themselves. More than that, reading Black Swan Green as an adult lets us see the situations for what they are, removing Jason’s adolescent worries while reminding us constantly of how awful and overwhelming life could be at that age.

But not content to simply give us a slice of adolescent life, Mitchell plunges us back into the early 1980’s in Britain, as the Falklands War explodes and Margaret Thatcher surges in popularity. It gives the book a wonderful lived-in feel, allowing the world to come to life without ever feeling insisted-upon or forced, and gives Jason’s story an impact that a generic setting could never match. (And, of course, there’s the fact that Mitchell is clearly somewhat writing his own story here, including the stammer that shapes so much of Jason’s life; it’s hard not to feel Mitchell’s experience shaping so much of what you read.)

The result is a rich, engaging novel, one that creates a world that I happily lived in and never wanted to leave. I got angry at Jason’s bullies, savored his odd conversations with an elderly neighbor who sees beneath his surface, ached for him as I realized just how bad his home life was getting, and got caught up in his pining for girls and the excitement of his first, tentative relationships. It’s the rare adolescent story told by an adult that remembers not only the exhilaration and boundless nature of that age, but all the tension and awfulness that filled our lives.

And beyond that, there’s Mitchell’s beautiful, rich prose, which gives every supporting character their own voice, makes Jason’s commentary on the world sing without ever feeling too old, and just plain works, making the novel the rich experience that it is. You’ll know Jason Taylor by the end of this, with all of his flaws, wants, needs, and hopes, and even if the book is just a slice of his life, there’s a sense that we’re seeing glimpses of the man he will become in here – and the man we want him to become. It’s a wonderfully funny, personal, rich book from a master writer – another essential read from an author who seems to write nothing but.


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