Black Swan Green

Just now, I am attending a professional conference. It takes place in eastern Kentucky, and right now, as I write, there’s a thunderstorm. This is the first thunderstorm I’ve experienced for four years; they happen, if they happen at all, with such scarcity in my part of the country (eastern Washington state) that I haven’t seen one yet. I grew up with them. I miss them. This is nice. Thanks, Kentucky.

Now, to the book. David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green is narrated by a thirteen-year-old boy, Jason, and each chapter is a month in his thirteenth year. Jason, like all thirteen-year-old kids, has his problems (is thirteen the worst possible age, or is three, or is twenty-three? Discuss.) He is a poet, at an age and gender when being a poet is totally unacceptable. He stammers, when the discovery of this will mean instantaneous social death. His parents freeze each other out. And the forest behind his house, though probably really only about an acre or so in size, seems to expand in mystery and danger every time he enters it.

I had issues with this book. I liked a lot of it. I liked Jason’s struggles with his stammer, which he calls Hangman, dodging and twisting it to escape his fate. I liked his friendship with Moran, and the way he felt helpless not to betray it at times, to save himself. The book was reasonably well-written, and Jason was a good character, interestingly tangled. But the episodic nature of the structure gave the book a bit of a feel of Afterschool Specials at times, neat and sentimental. Things wrap themselves up when they shouldn’t, or else they never get mentioned again.

The other trouble was that — forgive me — I’ve been thirteen, and I work with eighteen-year-olds, and Jason was no thirteen-year-old, or at least not all the time. Sometimes he seemed perfectly believable, and sometimes I had to stretch my credulity to the breaking point, and I never knew which it was going to be. Let me give you an example.

The best scene in the book comes early on. Jason, to cheer himself up, has put on his grandfather’s precious watch, an incredibly expensive Omega Seamaster. While he’s out, he sees a ghostly figure skating on the lake, a drowned boy, and in his fear he falls and hurts his ankle badly and gives himself a bump on the head.

I wondered what the time was and squinted at my grandad’s Omega but it was too dark in the tiny kitchen to see. Suppose it was late evening? I’d get back and my tea would be waiting under a Pyrex dish. Mum and Dad go ape if I’m not back in time for tea. Or s’pose it’d gone midnight? S’pose the police’d been alerted? Jesus…

No, worse than that. Back in the parlor I looked at my grandfather’s Omega and saw that there was no time. The glass face, the hour hand, and the minute hand’d gone and only a bent second hand was left. When I fell on the ice, it must’ve happened then. The casing was split and half its innards’d spilt out.

Here we have Jason, the thirteen-year-old, who knows — he knows — his world will come to an end because of what he’s done.

Compare that to this: Jason goes with his parents to a meeting about a new law providing a place for gypsies to encamp legally on village ground. Jason’s thoughts during the meeting:

I missed what he said next, thinking how the villagers wanted the Gypsies to be gross, so the grossness of what they’re not acts as a stencil for what they are… I thought how all leaders had the knack of turning what people’re afraid of into bows and arrows and muskets and grenades and nukes. That knack is power.

Sorry. My suspension of disbelief just snapped. And I didn’t even get into the charming-but-unrealistic chapter where an elderly German woman tutors Jason on modern poetry.

I suppose I’d expected something astonishing, because I’d heard a lot about Cloud Atlas. This is a nice, straightforward story about a thirteen-year-old, and sometimes it devolves into platitudes, and sometimes it’s quite good. You might enjoy it. I mostly did.

Note: I believe this novel got an award for YA fiction, but I would not characterize it as such. Just because the narrator is thirteen does not make this a young adult novel.

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19 Responses to Black Swan Green

  1. Every time I’ve removed my book from to shelf to read a few pages, I’ve returned it to the shelf unread. Someday perhaps I’ll try the audio. Sorry it wasn’t a perfect read.

  2. Hmm. It is difficult writing in a child’s voice because we tend to understand life better now so that if the writer is not careful he might impose his current view of life on the young narrator.

    Have also head of Cloud Atlas and how good it is. Looking forward to it though

  3. Rob says:

    You made me want to read this one! In spite of all the incoherence you’ve pointed out, I’m a big fan of stories whose narrators are in their teens – even though the writer behind the book may end up, as Nana Fredua-Agyeman said, imposing “his current view of life on the young narrator.” I’ll give Black Swan Green a try :-)

    • Jenny says:

      It was kind of mixed, but I did really enjoy it. Certain scenes were very good indeed, and if you like this sort of book, definitely give it a try.

  4. anokatony says:

    I did like this one, ‘Black Swan Green’, quite a lot more than you did. So far it is my favorite accessible David Mitchell. Of course I haven’t approached the monster ‘Cloud Atlas’ yet. I liked ‘Black Swan Green’ because it was a simple little unpreposing book.

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t dislike it at all! I liked it quite a bit, and said so. I did think it was flawed, in the ways I pointed out, but I’m interested in how books work and don’t work. It doesn’t have to be perfect for me to like it. :)

  5. Melissa says:

    I am hosting a readalong of Cloud Atlas in March with Care’s Online Book Club. Like you, I’ve heard so much about that one. I read Black Swan Green a few years ago, but I’ve heard it’s very different. You should join in if you’re up for it!

  6. softdrink says:

    He says “the casing was split.” What 13 year old knows what a casing is, especially when he then cals the innards, well, innards??

    I always struggle with young narrators who slip between being too knowledgable and then naive.

  7. Teresa says:

    I think precocious kids are especially tricky to write. If you make them too realistic for their age, they might not seem unusually intelligent enough for adult readers, especially those who don’t know many typical kids of that age. But if you smarten them up too much, they won’t be believable. Hard to find that balance.

    I really liked the one book by Mitchell that I read–The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet–and I think you would too. I get the impression that his books are all quite different from each other.

  8. Kathleen says:

    I’ve not heard of this one but I do believe I have Cloud Atlas on my shelves somewhere.

  9. Jenny says:

    I tried to read this years and years ago, and I had the same response of often not believing in the thirteen-year-old narration. I didn’t end up finishing it, and it’s made me reluctant to go back and give David Mitchell another try.

  10. I really enjoyed this when I read it several years ago, but I wouldn’t have classified it as YA either. It’s frequently difficult to reconcile the age of narrators with their self-awareness or large vocabularies, but I also don’t necessarily want to read something that actually feels like it’s written by a teenager as they don’t tend to write so well :) However, it’s definitely possible to toe the line – lots of YA books are believable and well-written.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s a really insightful comment. I wasn’t objecting to the writing at all. The style was quite a bit better than what a real thirteen-year-old would be capable of — more eloquent, more pulled-together, more striking. You can see in my two quotations that Mitchell makes Jason a little slangy (“The pond was *epic* that day,” he’ll say) and that’s fine. But he lost me with his lofty ponderings on the nature of power. Most of us don’t realize why bullies are bullies, for instance, or the best way to deal with them, until we’re in our twenties or much older. I thought Mitchell didn’t leave Jason confused enough. I agree, many YA books do this very well.

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