BLACK SWAN GREEN
“Hangman” is the name Jason Taylor gives to his stammer, humanizing his affliction perhaps making it a little easier to manage. He has become used to Hangman interrupting his speech, now able, with difficulty, to change his sentences on the fly.
“I envy anyone who can say what they want at the same time as they think it, without needing to test it for stammer-words”.
Taylor is thirteen years old and lives in Black Swan Green, Worcestershire, described by Jason as the deadest village in the world.
Black Swan Green is very different to Mitchell’s previous three novels. The novel chronicles a year (1982) in Jason’s life, the problems he faces, everyday ordinary thirteen-year-old problems. Bullies, girls, family, the fear of ostracism and social standing. Each chapter a month, a single word title hinting at relevance to the contents of the chapter.
By his own admission, Jason is not one of the really popular kids, not even one of the popular ones. He is on the next rung down, the one where everybody calls you by your surname. The liminal zone where you are seen but not known. Face and name your only attributes. But it could be worse, he could be on the lowest rung, where his friend, Moran, resides. On this level you receive the “piss-take” nicknames and are the butt of all the jokes. Sometimes anonymity can be a blessing.
And anonymity is what he uses writing his poetry in the Black Swan Green parish magazine under the penname “Eliot Bolivar”. He knows what would happen if his schoolmates ever found out. He must use a penname because poetry is “gay” and “gay” for a thirteen-year-old boy in 1982 is not what it is today.
It would not be a Mitchell book, if there were not some characters carried over from previous novels. Readers will recognize Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, the aging Belgian aristocrat who discovers Jason’s poetry and identity, as the young teenager, who Robert Frobisher falls in love with in “Cloud Atlas”. Although her appearance is short, she is one of my favourite characters, and to find out what has happened to her since “Cloud Atlas”, and the relationship she has with Jason, is worth every page.
Another carry over, is Mitchell’s humour and wit. Sometimes it creeps up on you slowly, while other times it hits you like a battering ram. I am surprised that more readers don’t mention his humorous side. I believe it is one of his strengths.
Reading this novel in 2020, you realize how much the world has changed. Everything is different. Clothes, hair, music, attitude, politics. There is no internet. If you want to see the latest movie, you hop in a line and hope there will be a seat left for you at the theatre, rather than stream it on your phone.
Many things considered the norm in 1982 are deemed as politically incorrect in today’s world. Many things the norm, deemed taboo now. Many justified; violence, racism, sexism, going to war over some insignificant islands a world away just to save face. 😊
When you are firmly ensconced in the narrative, these differences seem as glaring as the strobe lights at the disco in one of the latter chapters. Discos, another norm for the early eighties. What’s a disco? Google it. GOOGLE!!! How in the world did they survive without google???
This novel is not just about Jason. The dynamics and his relationship with his family, a family, unbeknown to Jason, that is splitting apart, play a major role in this year of his life. It is mortifying to see what is happening, while Jason is none the wiser. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself rooting (politically incorrect) for Jason. Hoping that things will turn out bright for him. He’s a good kid.
This is truly a wonderful, beautiful book. Jason is such an authentic character, as are all the characters revolving around him throughout the year. Another five-star read from one of the best contemporary writers writing today.
Oh, and another disappearance, perhaps the saddest of all. Big black vinyl LPs and Album covers. Google them. 😊