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the complete review - fiction
Black Swan Green
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B : decent episodic coming-of-age novel
See our review for fuller assessment.
Most liked it very much
From the Reviews:
- "The achievement of Black Swan Green is the way it realises the potential for both humour and pathos in the social awkwardness of adolescence -- the way Jason's desperate need to be accepted inevitably creates a sense of conflict about his burgeoning individuality." - James Ley, The Age
- "What makes Jason ultimately persuasive as a character (and believable as a narrator), though, is the pairing of lyrical precocity with worldly disorientation (.....) It is difficult to think of a young novelist as capaciously talented as Mitchell; with Black Swan Green, he has shown that he can do one quiet British year as well as he can a vast catastrophic epoch." - Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Bookforum
- "Mitchell, a Man Booker Prize nominee, clearly hasn't forgotten a minute of the humiliation and turmoil of adolescence, and he uses it all to create a genuinely memorable hero." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor
- "Black Swan Green is competent, and sometimes entertaining. But it is also ordinary, and no amount of able transcription of the local vernacular reprieves the novel's stock discoveries about sex or yearning speculations about the future from sounding all too painfully familiar." - The Economist
- "This book is so entertainingly strange, so packed with activity, adventures, and diverting banter, that you only realize as the extraordinary novel concludes that the timid boy has grown before your eyes into a capable young man." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly
- "Black Swan Green is as traditional as could be. Too traditional. I am sorry to report that while Mitchell was a good boy and did what Lionel told him to, the results are disappointing. (...) Now, this is a perfectly readable, harmless book. But after the commercial and critical success of Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green is sure to be pushed with a massive amount of hype. It really ought to rise to a higher standard than "readable". The local lingo is nicely captured, as is the gruff, nasty, defensive manner in which the barely pubescent talk to each other. Anecdotes are mildly amusing. But what is this book for ?" - Lionel Shriver, Financial Times
- "An easy and enjoyable read, Black Swan Green is at its most compelling when the dialogue is fraught with tension (.....) And although it lacks the stylistic innovation and play with form of Mitchell's other books, and may thus be a disappointment to his more cerebral and insistently postmodern readers, it offers more in the way of intimacy: It offers a friendship with its precocious and well-meaning young narrator that persists well beyond the last word." - Lydia Millet, The Globe & Mail
- "Black Swan Green's virtuosities of style complicate and enrich a series of vignettes whose bare story is, in the end, unremarkable. Perhaps Mitchell has confined himself to such a rigidly conventional format -- one year in the life of one boy in one village is almost a set of Aristotelian unities for a novel -- as a kind of exercise, as though a talented painter were to spend a year filling in the crude line-drawings of a child's colouring book in order to concentrate on brushwork and palette. The result is impressive, but it makes one wait even more eagerly for the next large canvas." - Steven Poole, The Guardian
- "The biggest question that occurred to me while reading it was whether all British writers of about Mitchell's age and class (including me) had the same childhood (give or take), or whether, in fact, everyone did. (...) Since this childhood seems to be rather common, the next question is how the act of recounting it can avoid the clichés of late-night talking heads shows in which everyone had a Space-hopper and someone always wonders what ever happened to white dog shit." - Scarlett Thomas, Independent on Sunday
- "If this at times gives Black Swan Green the flavor of a novel for so-called young adults, reader be warned: Along with passages of dream-sharp beauty, there are images of a nightmarish brutality that burn on in the mind long after the fine, final line." - Kai Maristed, The Los Angeles Times
- "The result is a narrative that feels at once private and universal, intimately in tune with each character's thoughts and feelings and spoken in a language that he or she might actually use. No other contemporary writer I know has depicted in such a honest yet readable way what really goes on inside the human head -- not just the scattered fragments of half-thoughts, but more importantly the narratives that we tell ourselves about our own lives." - Ruth Franklin, The New Republic
- "At times you have the sense that Mitchell wants his novel to be something more than an enjoyable exercise in recovered memory, that he wants it to be a Portrait of the Artist (...) but too often, for all this, there is a slight Adrian Mole texture to it. (...) It is enjoyable to be in his head for a while, to follow his journey to this point, but, like many of the stories that boys tell themselves, it never wholly rings true." - Tim Adams, New Statesman
- "His bildungsroman doesn’t fully succeed as a Portrait of the Poet as a Young Nerd, if only because it occasionally reads like The Wonder Years U.K." - Boris Kachka, New York
- "Black Swan Green stands on three legs: a time, a place and a voice. The first two are rock solid; the third wobbles. (...) David Mitchell is probably the most exciting English novelist at work today, and most of Black Swan Green is a delight to read -- deft, playful, perceptive. Which means that the heavy passages, the ones freighted with significance, sag more noticeably." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer
- "(B)rilliant (.....) Occasionally Jason's musings become a little too precociously poetic, but, then, he's that kind of kid. (...) There has got to be a way to write fiction that pays attention to people at the same time that it represents the breadth and complexity of the kinds of societies we live in now. Mitchell is the rare novelist who makes me see that path clearly" - Nell Freudenberger, The New York Times Book Review
- "Even Mitchell’s admirers may find Black Swan Green a welcome act of simplification. His previous novels have won him acclaim in Britain (...) but the characters were often lost amid the multilevel structures. By settling into a single narrative voice, and skipping the pyrotechnics, Mitchell has come by something that eluded him before: a sense of earned emotion. (...) Part of what elevates the book from the mundane is its crisp, intelligent construction." - Daniel Zalewski, The New Yorker
- "What is most interesting about Black Swan Green is that it is written by a novelist whose success seems to have left him with a sense of failure, with a disillusionment about his writing. Like his older-child hero, Mitchell seems to be struggling in this book to keep his spirits up. It is this that makes the novel so poignant. (...) The most successful scenes in the book are scenes of family life and Mitchell is at his best as a caricaturist. (...) Mitchell has wanted, I think, to do a very ambitious thing in this novel, which is to write a book about a young adolescent -- and the young adolescent as natural poet -- as though it was written by a young adolescent, but he hasn't quite found the voice for it." - Adam Phillips, The Observer
- "Mitchell's fourth novel, Black Swan Green, is poised to capitalize on the readership that discovered him with Cloud Atlas, but it might frustrate them. The structure and material are entirely conventional -- in fact, Black Swan Green almost seems like an explanation for why Mitchell usually writes novels like Cloud Atlas instead of the intimate, autobiographical fiction that other readers prefer." - Laura Miller, Salon
- "We may be born poets, but children also make great sadists, and social order loves to convert artists into soldiers. This poetry of childhood, with its ebullient visions and kindred dark passages, is the focus of David Mitchell's thoughtful and captivating new novel, Black Swan Green." - David Hellman, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Reading Black Swan Green, I was bored, on the one hand, to be spending so much time (credibly) inside its narrator’s head and irritated, on the other, by episodes of such embarrassing artifice that I found myself skimming ahead in search of the words, 'He woke with a start.' (...) There is a certain point in the narrative where you realise that this is not, in fact, a novel for grown-ups. It is, instead, a brilliantly handled novel for young adults." - Sebastian Smee, The Spectator
- "A study of English literary innocence, it explains itself gracefully, gently, as if to stupefied adults who should know better. This novel, written for the children we were, holds its still-intact innocence up like a real trophy." - Ali Smith, Sunday Telegraph
- "David Mitchell's new novel is a pitch-perfect study of a time and a place: small-town England in the early 1980s, seen through the eyes of a boy stranded in the hot zone of adolescence. (...) Mitchell is, perhaps, too clever a novelist for his own novel." - Daniel Swift, Sunday Telegraph
- "What can and can’t be said (metaphorically as well as literally) is the pervading theme. Specious speech -- rhetoric, evasion, pomposity, lies, bluster, blarney -- is rife. (...) Ironically, the book’s biggest obstacle to giving plausibility to all of this is its inability to sustain a believable narrative voice." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times
- "The family life of the Taylors is achingly plausible, the characters fully drawn, and Mitchell is adept at revealing appalling pettiness as a signifier of larger issues. This is a book about finding strength in unknown places and all of the members of the Taylor family are forced to do so. (...) Mitchell's work is getting funnier and he has a keen eye for the sheer absurdity and the cruelty of adolescence and family life. (...) This type of story is not what we expect from Mitchell, yet it highlights the talent that has held all of his previous work together: characterisation." - Mark Tewfik, Sydney Morning Herald
- "Black Swan Green proceeds (more in the manner of a scrapbook than a thriller) through the seasons of the year (.....) The novel thus matures into, among a hundred other things, a moving and eloquent portrait of the artist as a young man." - Pico Iyer, Time
- "If Mitchell intended to test his own writing and his ability to hold the reader's attention without jumping wildly from setting to setting and character to character, the exercise has not been a complete success." - Paul Owen, The Times
- "This is a luminously beautiful book. It celebrates the liberating power of language while reviewing without bitterness or resentment the role that inarticulacy, shyness, even bullying, might play in shaping the future career of a writer." - Ruth Scurr, The Times
- "There is a sense, sometimes, that more is crammed into the book than it can contain. But in a world of contentless novels it seems churlish to complain about that -- and anyway, the real does seem too small to contain the immanent. In the end, Black Swan Green uses all the kinds of books we think it is, and our expectations of them, to funnel our understanding of it; to become the single thing it is; to disclose and represent a kind of magical process. It is less a story than a ritual, a book not about finding yourself -- though that is how Jason often perceives his struggle -- but about being directed to yourself." - M.John Harrison, Times Literary Supplement
- "Mitchell is great at beginnings, reluctant with conclusions. He loves even his most minor characters so much that he resurrects them, sets up new resonances, fresh recognitions." - Ed Park, The Village Voice
- "After the sprawling scope and pyrotechnic style of his Booker Prize-nominated Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell could have delivered nothing more surprising than this charming, quiet novel (.....) Mitchell makes all this look easy, but from the pen of anyone less gifted, these stories would turn precious, maudlin or dull. He has a perfect ear for that most calamitous year, the first of the teens, when we come face-to-face with the volatile nature of life." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Black Swan Green covers the year 1982 and the beginning of 1983, the stammering thirteen year old Jason Taylor recounting month by month his life in the English backwater of Black Swan Green in Worcestershire.
It's a novel of adolescence and growing up: the main thing is getting by in school and not being seen as a total loser (or totally gay -- or a stammerer), but Jason also learns some important lessons along the way, and gets in some of those big life-events as well -- the first kiss ! recognition for his poetry ! standing up to the bullies ! encounters with misunderstood minorities (gypsies) !
And along the way his family falls apart.
Black Swan Green is remarkably conventional in its plotting.
There's Jason's constant fear about his 'Hangman', his stammer ("anything's better than getting labeled 'School Stutterboy' "), holding him back from saying everything he'd like or need to.
(Surprise, surprise: he finds an outlet in writing, publishing poetry in a local magazine under the pseudonym 'Eliot Bolivar'.)
The shifting school hierarchy and Jason's attempts to maintain a respectable but not too prominent position play a huge role in his day-to-day life.
Among his major concerns for much of the book is a valuable watch his father gave him that he smashed to bits; it, of course, turns out to be a small concern in the bigger picture.
Black Swan Green is a book of relationships, of Jason trying to figure out where he stands with regards to a wide variety of people.
He gets support from sometimes unexpected quarters, adults swooping in to save him from his stammer, for example, or a woman who takes an interest in his poetry, but he finds that many close to him aren't exactly what they seem.
His sister -- off to university half-way through the book -- refers to him merely as 'Thing' at the beginning, but turns out in fact to be much more sympathetic and aware.
His parents, meanwhile, have their own secrets, their lives diverging fast, something Jason barely wants to acknowledge.
Jason is presented as a poet, though he's not entirely obsessed with it and it only crops up a few times.
Literarily naïve -- he's not read very much real literature -- the written is nevertheless an outlet for him, and he supposedly has some talent.
He narrates the story, and it's an odd voice, trying both to capture the boyish slang and attitude of the early 1980s but also considerably more ambitious in word-choice and -play.
It often doesn't sound like a thirteen year old boy, with too much detail that one wouldn't expect someone his age to notice:
My eye spidered over my poster of black angelfish turning into white swans, across over my map of Middle-earth, around my door frame, into my curtains, lit fiery mauve by my spring sun, and fell down the well of dazzle.
It's an often engaging voice, but it doesn't sound authentic; part of Mitchell's trick is that it nevertheless rings quite true -- if the boy could express himself this way, this might very well be what he'd have to say.
(There's a great deal of dialogue -- simpler fare -- , which helps obscure the artifice of Jason's descriptions.)
Listening to houses breathe makes you weightless.
Mitchell also seems incapable of writing a continuous narrative: like his previous work, Black Swan Green is very much episodic, each chapter focussed on a month and some specific events.
Much carries through across the novel, but the chapters remain distinct, not flowing together (despite the forced month-upon-month sequence).
Parts stand too far apart, notably an encounter with Madame Crommelynck who is interested in Jason's poetry (but is rather disappointed to find him to be an "illiterate monkey of puberty"); not knowing what to do with her (and not ready to have him play a more important part in Jason's life) Mitchell has her get extradited (or rather: extradited !) almost as soon as the boy meets her.
Mitchell seems to be trying to see how far he can push the conventional: the good deeds with catastrophic consequences, the various encounters with bullies, the break-up of the Taylors' marriage, wondering about sex, a first kiss, the Falklands war.
He does many of these scenes extremely well: the school dance, his father's boss and protégé, the various petty brutalities at school.
(A few are pretty bad, too, like the life-lessons learnt from an encounter with the gypsies.)
But it doesn't add up to anything bigger: there's a chunk of life here, and at the end of the book life is about to change dramatically, and yet it doesn't feel in any way conclusive.
Of course, that too may be part of Mitchell's point, as he closes the book:
"It'll be all right."
Julia's gentleness makes it worse.
"In the end, Jace."
Which is all well and good but not entirely satisfactory.
"It doesn't feel very all right."
"That's because it's not the end."
Much of Black Swan Green is well-written, but it doesn't sound quite right.
The narrator is an odd mix of the naïve (especially about sex) and the eloquent -- and Black Swan Green just a bit too oppressive an environment.
The month-by-month progression, in particular, doesn't work very well, feeling even more than the voice not the way a child advances in life.
Black Swan Green reads well enough -- Mitchell has talent, no doubt -- and offers decent entertainment, but it is (like all of Mitchell's previous work) still not entirely satisfying as a novel.
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Black Swan Green:
Other books by David Mitchell under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See also the Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
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About the Author:
English author David Mitchell was born in 1969.
He currently lives in Ireland.
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© 2006-2011 the complete review
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