Mitchell is a fantastic writer, continuing to display chameleon skills with every book. he can write, truthfully, with several different voices, and in several different styles.
In this book, on one level he damps down his pyrotechnics,by staying with one narrator throughout, rather than 'linking' different stories.
What he ends up with is a book of more traditional structure, following the journey of a adolescent boy, growing up in the early 80's in Worcestershire, with his own painful and often funny adolescence set against a backdrop of the Falklands War.
Whilst Mitchell can easily match Sue Townsend (Adrian Mole) with comedic touches, he also connects with something much more visceral and poignant.
His engaging narrator learns a lot in the space of a year about some very adult issues. This is a much easier book to read than Mitchell's others, and his craft is displayed much less flamboyantly, but is no less satisfying
on 29 November 2011
This is a little out of my usual genre for reading material. It was like digging up a time capsule from the 1980s with so many historical references to the times and it took me back even further to my school days in the 60s.
I cannot make comparisons to Adrian Mole as I haven't read any of those stories but the connection seems to be there with the main character, Jason Taylor, being just thirteen years old.
Some have suggested that Mitchell wrote this as an autobiography as he, like his protagonist, suffers from stammering but many of the incidents portrayed in the book appear to be the work of an active imagination rather than the documentation of real events. I was much impressed by the intelligence and coherence of Jason's thirteeen-year-old thought processes. (Did we ever think that clearly at that age?) I am also grateful for being educated in the difference between stammering and stuttering.
The story covers a year in Jason's life, dealing with his disability, school bullies, his parents' marriage breakdown, rising libido, et al. I really liked Mitchell's writing style and his avoidance of cliches with imaginative similes although sometimes this led to difficult interpretations of what was actually meant.
In some places the dialogue (especially with the 'exotic Belgian emigre' with the unpronounceable name) read more like a professorial tutorial than a novel but that's by-the-by.
Altogether an engaging rite of passage story which was well-written, well-constructed and a pleasure to read.
A very impressive story of teenager coming to terms with the world around him in the 1980s. The tale tells of the thirteen months of Jason's life between childhood and adolescence - the stammering, the bullies, the family strife, the Falklands War and the diverse and strange characters living in his village. As a sensitive, intelligent boy Jason has to make his way in life through a maze of dangers - knowing which boys to avoid, not using the wrong words, wearing the right clothes, not letting anyone know he writes poetry etc. The whole book is laden with cultural and historical references: Curly Whirlies, Thatcherism, Gotcha and ZX Spectrums.
An authentic narrative voice is in turns funny, perceptive and moving. In parts it is desperately sad (even though Jason expresses no self pity) but is ultimately positive and uplifting. Beautifully constructed novel and exuberant language.
on 30 August 2007
Not quite an unqualified eulogy from me although I enjoyed reading it immensely hence the 4 stars. Mitchell sets out to convince us this is 1982 by loading the period references to an alarming - even excessive - degree; typically no opportunity is passed to give precise details of a meal, pop tune, clothes or whatever in order to re-emphasise that this is 1982, and this occasionally leads to clunky dialogue or stilted prose, eg when an adult refers laboriously to "Kay's Catalogues in Worcester" (a person would simply have referred to "Kays") or when Jason himself points out that the sweets from the jar in the shop come served up in paper bags (as they always were back then - in 1982 you wouldn't think to point it out). The artificial overloading of period data inevitably leads to the occasional factual error, which also grates with a reader if he or she happens to spot them. One or two other plot devices fail - we know the young sailor is serving on HMS Coventry so we can guess immediately what his fate will be. I felt he could have been put on a lesser known ship with more devastating impact (Who remembers now the ships that took hits and casualties but were not lost, like HMS Glamorgan?) The scene in which the young sailor had nightmares about combat before the Task Force was even dreamt about were overdramatised and silly - until the actual conflict and the inevitability of combat loomed he would have had no more fear of the terror of war than his former schoolfriends - The navy was just about the safest place to be until May 1982. A fact that annoys revisionist historians and some authors is that back in 1982 support for the Task Force (and for Margaret Thatcher) was extremely high - but most adults in the story here regard her as a warmonger and a barbarian and only the kids are excited by the news footage. Thatcher may have been reviled elsewhere but in Middle England where this story is set she was Brittania personified.
Having said all this what works so well about this book and what ultimately redeems it is the beautifully observed capture of the politics and issues of a young adolescent boy at school and of a middle class family in turmoil - things which paradoxically have hardly changed at all in the intervening 25 years. I'd recommend this book.
on 19 August 2006
Anyone who is a fan of David Mitchell (and even those who have not read him) will love this book. However, don't expect the style of his previous books: Number 9 Dream, Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten. This is the story of a year in the rather eventful life of Jason Taylor, a boy of 13 growing up in a village called Black Swan Green, Worcestershire, in the early 1980s. Jason, apart from being quite a normal 13 year old, is a stammerer who tries desperately hard to hide his 'secret' from the rest of his schoolmates. His story of his experiences at school is one that anyone who was a teenager can identify with: how he sees his parents, the teachers, bullies, and those strange creatures called girls. But what makes this teenage narrative come alive, what makes you feel like you are there with Jason Taylor is the often brutal honesty with which he tells his truth. He says all the things you thought about as a teenager growing up but didn't dare to articulate. Mitchell also manages to evoke a nostalgia for the 1980s, and his detailing is superb. You remember how you or your parents or friends felt during the recession, or the public mood during the Falklands War. And there is also a nice touch where Mitchell quite unexpectedly introduces a character from one of his stories in Cloud Atlas.
The English countryside and village life is portrayed without the slightest hint of romanticism. A teenage boy doesn't see life like that. This is life in the raw. Jason sees the often brutal contests between boys to establish a pecking order, he is afraid of being ridiculed or beaten up after school, he worries about his status among the rest of the kids and he wonders if he will ever have a girlfriend. Life for young Jason Taylor is very serious indeed. In Black Swan Green, Mitchell makes a rather unpromising subject tense and fascinating. And it's a real pageturner -- you just have to know what happens next. Just buy this book!
on 27 May 2007
David Mitchell deserves awards for his writing because he must be the finest author around. Black Swan Green takes you through a year in the life of thirteen-year-old boy in a typical English village in 1982. His references to events of the time, in particular the Falklands War take you back as you read. It does help that Jason Taylor is a very likeable, intelligent and yet vulnerable boy, being afflicted with a stammer, and the book is very painful to read at times as he suffers that most bleak and hurtful thing, bullying. I'd recently read Cloud Atlas which was a brilliant but quite difficult read and I knew this book was a lot easier but I was surprised that he even linked this book to Cloud Atlas through the amazing and surreal Madame Crommelynck daughter of Vyvyan Ayrs and who was the unrequited love of the tragic Robert Frobisher. Overall this book is an absolute 'must' read, as good as 'Catcher in the Rye'.
on 24 July 2007
David Mitchell's fourth novel is an honest and personal account of a 13-year old boy, Jason Taylor, growing up in the early 1980s in the 'one-horse' village of Black Swan Green, Worcestershire. Jason's life has never been easy - he possesses a stammer and a decidedly sensitive streak, making him rich pickings for the vile school bully, Ross Wilcox, and his braying followers.
Mitchell has again written a novel that is almost impossible to dislike. Jason is a fascinating character, torn between his conscience and his desire to fit in (represented by 'Unborn Twin' and 'Maggot', respectively), and is somebody who can find humour in even the most miserable situations.
This book touches on serious issues (the Falklands, bullying) but is ultimately a slight tale, and although it is beautifully written, its structure is somewhat episodic. The narrative flows unhindered, but doesn't go anywhere in particular - there are no denouments, and we are left simply with an image of Jason as a stronger figure than he was a the beginning.
That aside, the novel excels in its realism, humour and empathy. In fact, Mitchell's empathy for Jason Taylor is so pronounced that one wonders whether the book is largely autobiographical. Are Jason Taylor and David Mitchell the same person? We may never know, but it is a credit to David Mitchell that we keep asking ourselves that question throughout.
Read this book if you ever passed through adolesence. You will see yourself again briefly in the main character, the everyman adolosent -Jason. You will take comfort in the pain that Jason feels within these pages because you will see that through your own troubled teenage years, no matter how bad it all seemed, you were not alone. Jason, and all the other teenagers, were with you.
This is an enjoyable book, told in the first person narrative, packed full of detail about the 1980s (perhaps too tightly packed?) and the prose is, as expected, well polished. The story, in essence, is not original, but I don't think that's a flaw. If you've ever been a thirteen year old boy then you'll have lived through many parts of the "plot" yourself - girls, emerging adolosence, girls, anxiety about social standing at school, girls, role-models, stupid friends, squabbling parents, and of course girls. Jason has the misfortune to top it all with a stammer, which adds a great deal to the normal rollercoaster of emotions and draws the reader's sympathy (but without shamelessly plucking the heartstrings).
Much of the book's appeal is perhaps in the way that its subject matter is so ordinary and most males will be able to nostalgically relate to it (girls will like it too, because it lets them inside mens' heads). There isn't much of a plot - which again I would not say is a flaw. The events take us subtly, meanderingly through the mind of a slightly confused boy stretching out to reach into the possibilities and mysteries of adolosence. It is interesting, suprising, and quite credible to see the adolescent shape that young Jason steps into in the last few pages of the book and to see how he does it. And that's you as well.
on 24 April 2008
Take a trip into the mind of a twelve-to-thirteen year old boy who is experiencing the beginnings of puberty, love of poetry and 'what life means' in Thatcherite England. He draws metaphors from the everyday, the mundane and things you would never have thought of yourself, but which, upon reflection, appear so incredibly appropriate. 'She had knuckles like toblerone' is one I recall (probably inaccurately) offhand.
This book once again exemplifies why Mitchell is such a fantastic author. He is able to go from the incredible accomplishment of Cloud Atlas, to the more meditative and playful Black Swan Green. What makes the book doubly good, and why it is true Mitchell fare, is that he obviously takes such pleasure in language, he relishes words and finding wonderful metaphors for the mundane. If nothing else it makes you believe Jason, makes you want to have met him as an adolescent and to wonder at what kind of a man he would be now.
I also enjoyed the cute connection to Cloud Atlas. I'm a sucker for such things.
The coming-of-age genre is a rich and well-populated genre, and while I'm not sure that Mitchell has added anything to it here, this is a fine example. Set in 1982 in a small Worcestershire town, the story covers just over a year in the life of 12-year old Jason Taylor. This mirrors Mitchell's own age and background, and since Mitchell has said this is the first novel he drafted, one can assume that like many others in the genre, this coming-of-age novel is highly autobiographical.
Jason's trials and tribulations are fairly familiar ones: he has a speech impediment which causes him much mental and social distress. His place on the elaborate pecking order of local adolescent boys is of paramount importance, and the seemingly arbitrary nature of his ascent or descent play a large role in the story. Naturally, girls are a topic of great interest and concern, though not overwhelmingly so. The buildup to the Falklands War and its less-than-glorious outcome feature prominently (Jason inadvertently plays peeping tom on a local lad turned sailor, and it's somewhat disappointing when this leads down the obvious narrative path). His big sister is off to college, and he's blithely unaware of the imminent end of his parent's marriage.
These themes and touchstones will be very familiar to anyone (like me), who read Sue Townsend's "The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole" some 20 years ago. The difference is in the execution -- the Mole books tend to be more comedic and antic, while Mitchell's approach is both more realistic and elliptical. Readers expecting the semi-experimentalism of Mitchell's other works may be disappointed by the relatively straightforward chronological episodic nature of Jason's story. That said, Mitchell does subvert narrative expectations several times by ending a particular story or incident prior to its resolution, and sometimes, but sometimes not alluding to the outcome in subsequent chapters. The reason for this occasionally annoying construction is summed up in the book's final line "That's because it's not the end."
Mitchell's established skills are in evidence, as various characters come alive within mere sentences of being introduced. However, unlike his other work, while the sense of time is very vivid, the sense of place isn't, beyond a kind of generic early-'80s "Home Counties" naivety. There are other nice touches throughout, such as Jason's internal dialogue with aspects of himself ("Hangman" is the evil trickster who brings out his stammer and "Maggot" is the cowardly or fragile part of his self). There's also a nice cameo by a Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, who was a minor character in one portion of Mitchell's amazing earlier work, "Cloud Atlas." All in all, if you like the coming of age genre, this is a perfectly good one from an excellent writer.