Black Swan Green

Black Swan Green

4.1 42
by David Mitchell

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Black Swan Green tracks a single year in what is, for thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, the sleepiest village in muddiest Worcestershire in a dying Cold War England, 1982. But the thirteen chapters, each a short story in its own right, create an observed world that is anything but sleepy. A world of Kissingeresque realpolitik enacted in boys' games on a frozen lake; of …  See more details below


Black Swan Green tracks a single year in what is, for thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, the sleepiest village in muddiest Worcestershire in a dying Cold War England, 1982. But the thirteen chapters, each a short story in its own right, create an observed world that is anything but sleepy. A world of Kissingeresque realpolitik enacted in boys' games on a frozen lake; of "nightcreeping" through the summer backyards of strangers; of the tabloid-fueled thrills of the Falklands War and its human toll; of the cruel, luscious Dawn Madden and her power-hungry boyfriend, Ross Wilcox; of a certain Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, an elderly bohemian emigre who is both more and less than she appears; of Jason's search to replace his dead grandfather's irreplaceable watch before his parents discover he has smashed it; of first cigarettes, first kisses, first Duran Duran LPs, and first deaths; of Margaret Thatcher's recession; of Gypsies camping in the woods and the hysteria they inspire; and, even closer to home, of a slow-motion divorce in four seasons.

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Editorial Reviews

With this delightful coming-of-age tale, David Mitchell forsakes the grandiose settings and narrative leaps of his prior novel (the award-winning Cloud Atlas) for a seemingly miniaturized sort of novel. As he follows teenage Jason Taylor through 13 months of life in a sleepy English village (the Black Swan Green of the title), Mitchell explores themes as large as love, war, cruelty, courage, and poetry -- all through the voice of a stammering boy trying to survive school, his parents' disintegrating marriage, and the secret burden of his own hopes and dreams.

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Do not set foot in my office. That's Dad's rule. But the phone'd rung twenty-five times. Normal people give up after ten or eleven, unless it's a matter of life or death. Don't they? Dad's got an answering machine like James Garner's in The Rockford Files with big reels of tape. But he's stopped leaving it switched on recently. Thirty rings, the phone got to. Julia couldn't hear it up in her converted attic 'cause "Don't You Want Me?" by Human League was thumping out dead loud. Forty rings. Mum couldn't hear 'cause the washing machine was on berserk cycle and she was hoovering the living room. Fifty rings. That's just not normal. S'pose Dad'd been mangled by a juggernaut on the M5 and the police only had this office number 'cause all his other I.D.'d got incinerated? We could lose our final chance to see our charred father in the terminal ward.

So I went in, thinking of a bride going into Bluebeard's chamber after being told not to. (Bluebeard, mind, was waiting for that to happen.) Dad's office smells of pound notes, papery but metallic too. The blinds were down so it felt like evening, not ten in the morning. There's a serious clock on the wall, exactly the same make as the serious clocks on the walls at school. There's a photo of Dad shaking hands with Craig Salt when Dad got made regional sales director for Greenland. (Greenland the supermarket chain, not Greenland the country.) Dad's IBM computer sits on the steel desk. Thousands of pounds, IBMs cost. The office phone's red like a nuclear hotline and it's got buttons you push, not the dial you get on normal phones. So anyway, I took a deep breath, picked up the receiver, and said our number. I can say that without stammering, at least. Usually.

But the person on the other end didn't answer. "Hello?" I said. "Hello?"

They breathed in like they'd cut themselves on paper.

"Can you hear me? I can't hear you."

Very faint, I recognized the Sesame Street music.

"If you can hear me"-I remembered a Children's Film Foundation film where this happened-"tap the phone, once."

There was no tap, just more Sesame Street.

"You might have the wrong number," I said, wondering.

A baby began wailing and the receiver was slammed down.

When people listen they make a listening noise.

I'd heard it, so they'd heard me.

"May as well be hanged for a sheep as hanged for a handkerchief." Miss Throckmorton taught us that aeons ago. 'Cause I'd sort of had a reason to have come into the forbidden chamber, I peered through Dad's razor-sharp blind, over the glebe, past the cockerel tree, over more fields, up to the Malvern Hills. Pale morning, icy sky, frosted crusts on the hills, but no sign of sticking snow, worse luck. Dad's swivelly chair's a lot like the Millennium Falcon's laser tower. I blasted away at the skyful of Russian MiGs streaming over the Malverns. Soon tens of thousands of people between here and Cardiff owed me their lives. The glebe was littered with mangled fusilages and blackened wings. I'd shoot the Soviet airmen with tranquilizer darts as they pressed their ejector seats. Our marines'll mop them up. I'd refuse all medals. "Thanks, but no thanks," I'd tell Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan when Mum invited them in, "I was just doing my job."

Dad's got this fab pencil sharpener clamped to his desk. It makes pencils sharp enough to puncture body armor. H pencils're sharpest, they're Dad's faves. I prefer 2Bs.

The doorbell went. I put the blind back to how it was, checked I'd left no other traces of my incursion, slipped out, and flew downstairs to see who it was. The last six steps I took in one death-defying bound.

Moron, grinny-zitty as ever. His bumfluff's getting thicker, mind. "You'll never guess what!"


"You know the lake in the woods?"

"What about it?"

"It's only"-Moron checked that we weren't being overheard-"gone and froze solid! Half the kids in the village're there, right now. Ace doss or what?" "Jason!" Mum appeared from the kitchen. "You're letting the cold in! Either invite Dean inside-hello Dean-or shut the door."

"Um . . . just going out for a bit, Mum."

"Um . . . where?"

"Just for some healthy fresh air."

That was a strategic mistake. "What are you up to?"

I wanted to say "Nothing" but Hangman decided not to let me. "Why would I be up to anything?" I avoided her stare as I put on my navy duffel coat.

"What's your new black parka done to offend you, may I ask?"

I still couldn't say "Nothing." (Truth is, black means you fancy yourself as a hard-knock. Adults can't be expected to understand.) "My duffel's a bit warmer, that's all. It's parky out."

"Lunch is one o'clock sharp." Mum went back to changing the Hoover

bag. "Dad's coming home to eat. Put on a woolly hat or your head'll freeze." Woolly hats're gay but I could stuff it in my pocket later.

"Good-bye then, Mrs. Taylor," said Moron.

"Good-bye, Dean," said Mum.

Mum's never liked Moron.

Moron's my height and he's okay but Jesus he pongs of gravy. Moron wears ankle-flappers from charity shops and lives down Druggers End in a brick cottage that pongs of gravy too. His real name's Dean Moran (rhymes with "warren") but our P.E. teacher Mr. Carver started calling him "Moron" in our first week and it's stuck. I call him "Dean" if we're on our own but name's aren't just names. Kids who're really popular get called by their first names, so Nick Yew's always just "Nick." Kids who're a bit popular like Gilbert Swinyard have sort of respectful nicknames like "Yardy." Next down are kids like me who call each other by our surnames. Below us are kids with piss-take nicknames like Moran Moron or Nicholas Briar, who's Knickerless Bra. It's all ranks, being a boy, like the army. If I called Gilbert Swinyard just "Swinyard," he'd kick my face in. Or if I called Moron "Dean" in front of everyone, it'd damage my own standing. So you've got to watch out.

Girls don't do this so much, 'cept for Dawn Madden, who's a boy gone wrong in some experiment. Girls don't scrap so much as boys either. (That said, just before school broke up for Christmas, Dawn Madden and Andrea Bozard started yelling "Bitch!" and "Slag!" in the bus queues after school. Punching tits and pulling hair and everything, they were.) Wish I'd been born a girl, sometimes. They're generally loads more civilized. But if I ever admitted that out loud I'd get bumhole plummer scrawled on my locker. That happened to Floyd Chaceley for admitting he liked Johann Sebastian Bach. Mind you, if they knew Eliot Bolivar, who gets poems published in Black Swan Green Parish Magazine, was me, they'd gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone.

So anyway, as Moron and I walked to the lake he told me about the Scalectrix he'd got for Christmas. On Boxing Day its transformer blew up and nearly wiped out his entire family. "Yeah, sure," I said. But Moron swore it on his nan's grave. So I told him he should write to That's Life on BBC and get Esther Rantzen to make the manufacturer pay compensation. Moron thought that might be difficult 'cause his dad'd bought it off a Brummie at Tewkesbury Market on Christmas Eve. I didn't dare ask what a "Brummie" was in case it's the same as "bummer" or "bumboy," which means homo. "Yeah," I said, "see what you mean." Moron asked me what I'd got for Christmas. I'd actually got £13.50 in book tokens and a poster of Middle-earth, but books're gay so I talked about the Game of Life, which I'd got from Uncle Brian and Aunt Alice. It's a board game you win by getting your little car to the end of the road of life first, and with the most money. We crossed the crossroads by the Black Swan and went into the woods. Wished I'd rubbed ointment into my lips 'cause they get chapped when it's this cold. Soon we heard kids through the trees, shouting and screaming. "Last one to the lake's a spaz!" yelled Moron, haring off before I was ready. Straight off he tripped over a frozen tire rut, went flying, and landed on his arse. Trust Moran. "I think I might've got a concussion," he said.

"Concussion's if you hit your head. Unless your brain's up your arse." What a line. Pity nobody who matters was around to hear it.

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Black Swan Green 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 41 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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St. Lucys home for girls is very heart warming. I love how they explained how hard their lives were and also very difficult. For the fact that they were raised by wolves, their trasitions were pretty valid. Meaning, changing a part of you that isnt meant to be changed can be very difficult to transition from who you are to something else.
Vlad_Vaslyn More than 1 year ago
Jason Taylor has secrets, and if they get out, he’s ruined. His stutter and his amateur poetry will make him a target for bullies for years to come, and no girl will have anything to do with him – including the savage and beautiful Dawn Madden. He is dreadfully aware of his less-than-average place in the social pecking order, and wants nothing more than to be accepted by his peers. He doesn’t want to live in fear either. Jason’s story only gets more complicated as family difficulties, love, bullies, friendship and a distant war that seems all too near take their toll in their own unique ways. Jason must navigate this labyrinth at a time when he is dreadfully ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of a life he is only beginning to understand. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell began as a pretty average coming-of-age story about a thirteen-year-old boy named Jason who is struggling with adolescence, and the harsh realities of the adult lives that bleed into his own. It engaged me enough to keep me reading, but lacked the literary wizardly of Cloud Atlas. However, what felt like a lot of set-up eventually fell into place at about the mid-point, and after that I was fully vested in the characters and couldn’t put the book down. The run-of-the-mill tale blossomed into a poignant, original, and heartfelt experience about what it means to be confronted by the confusion and uncertainty of a future that seems infinite and overwhelming. Black Swan Green has all the marks of a good book because it took me through an emotional gamut, from humor, to sadness, to contemplation, and back again. Mitchell’s simple observations about life, society, and human nature follow a rich literary tradition, and like Steinbeck, he excels at penning emotionally resonant descriptions and insights that are, at times, poetic.  Mitchell is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors, and I expect I will have read his entire repertoire soon enough. -Vlad Vaslyn Author of Brachman's Underworld, Yorick and The Button (Fall 2013).
InkandPage More than 1 year ago
Adolescence. If there’s something else like that time in your life, I’ve never heard of it. When is there another period that alternates between being excruciatingly horrible and exhilaratingly brilliant? Awkwardness, attraction, body changes. Crushes, bullies, first kisses. Faces that haven’t caught up to noses yet. Boys are tiny, girls terrifying and towering. And neither sex understands the other. A kid’s status can change overnight from cool (superhero underwear!) to outcast (superhero underwear!) without any warning. Main theme from this age: pay attention or die. Maybe I haven’t read that many coming-of-age novels (or Bildungsroman, as I have learned today), but when I think of them, I always assumed that these types of books were either moody in an “adults don’t understand me or my generation at all so I am going to sulk and smoke filterless cigarettes” kind-of-a-way or something abhorrent happens that  knocks the main character for a loop or otherwise takes them on a journey that most people never have to experience. I found out that I am wrong, that it really can be any kind of book where the kid just grows up. So, yes, this book is a coming-of-age novel; but it is so much more because it also flies below the radar. The tales, the pacing and the discoveries aren’t really profound. They just are the truth that we all experience in one way or another. Jason Taylor is a new teen in Margaret Thatcher’s Faulkland Islands-era England. He lives in Black Swan Green, a village in Worcestershire, which is a place he considers to be the middle of nowhere. Plus, there are no swans. He finds himself to be uninteresting, uncool and desperately trying to stay below the radar of his fellow classmates that would crucify him if they knew he stuttered. There’s a definite strata of kids, and certain things can get you lowered a peg or two. Like stuttering. Or having people know that you write poetry that’s published in the parish newsletter. This is a story of thirteen. The struggles to be heard, wanting someone to like like you, trying to convince your parents that you aren’t a little kid anymore. Being respected (or, more accurately, not tortured) by your peers. Hoping that teachers would stop being tired sadists. Trying to make it through the day without embarrassing yourself, or worse, having everyone else see you embarrass yourself. There is one chapter for each year of Jason’s life with a different tale each month: a sister leaves for college, an old lady giving a lesson in writing. Fights, loss of life, a first crush. Being comfortable in your own skin. Standing up for yourself, no matter what. Ordinary stories, really, but out of their “ordinariness” we find resonance and depth. And ourselves. The first thing I wondered when I starting to write my review was the age of David Mitchell. Was this book autobiographical? Did he stutter like the main character, Jason Taylor? After a quick search on Google, I discovered that this tale is, indeed, semi-autobiographical. The author does stutter and he grew up in the area where the story takes place. Mr. Mitchell was born in 1969, so he was thirteen,  the same age as the protagonist, in 1982, the year the book takes place. The book’s honesty is palpable. Wanting to hide something so you’re not different. Trying to keep from being lumped in with that group of kids that is the most scorned. Attempting to show some measure of cool, without being called out on it. In  other words, middle school. And even though quite a bit of the slang was new to me, it flavored this book and made it a truthful slice of life. 4 of 5 Stars (Based on Ink and Page’s Rating System) Genres: Young Adult Fiction Contemporary Ages: 14 and up You might want to know: Occasional profanity, mild discussions of sex, drinking and drugs Black Swan Green by David Mitchell was published April 11, 2006 by Random House.
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