Black Swan Green by David Mitchell - review by Sam Leith

Sam Leith


Black Swan Green


Sceptre 371pp £16.99

Lunch at 9 Kingfisher Meadows, Black Swan Green, Worcestershire, was Findus ham’n’cheese Crispy Pancakes, crinkle-cut oven chips and sprouts. Sprouts taste of fresh puke but mum said I had to eat five without making a song and dance about it, or there’d be no butterscotch Angel Delight for pudding.

Anyone who remembers what a ‘flying saucer’ felt like as its rice-paper casing dissolved on the tongue to spill its sherbet will recognise where we are with this. David Mitchell’s new novel is exuberantly nostalgic. But it is more than simply an exercise in period kitsch.

Mitchell has said that the theme of his previous novels was ‘predation’. By that, I think he means the exercise of power by the strong, at the expense of the weak – be it by the ruling caste in a future dystopia, the boss of a Japanese crime syndicate, the staff in a residential old folks’ home, or a fearsome lone wolf like the Mongolian hitman who stalks his first three books. In Black Swan Green, he takes up the same theme – but what he addresses here is the foundational predation of the school playground.

The story covers a year in the life of Mitchell’s narrator, Jason Taylor, thirteen years old in 1982 in the village of the book’s title. He has enemies inside and out. There are the ‘hard-knocks’ at school, whose places in the pecking order are charted – Jason is shrewd enough to perceive – by whether they are known (and to whom) by nicknames, first names, or their last names, and whose nomenclature is determined by the occasional public punch-up. The little rituals of childhood hierarchy – initiation ceremonies, smoking, even where you sit in the maths lesson – are exactly described. Kindness, and moral good, is always played off against the desperate wish to be cool – to be one of them.

Jason’s worst antagonist, though, is ‘Hangman’: the imaginary internal enemy who invigilates his stammer. At any time Hangman can choke a syllable in Jason’s throat, and one of the most agonising chapters concerns the run-up to Jason’s turn at giving a reading in assembly. The Fourth Commandment of Hangman, as Jason well knows, is ‘Once Taylor is “Stutterboy” in the eyes of the world, he is yours.’

As the various episodes in Black Swan Green unfold, you get a picture of a community, and of an age, and of a person: whose sister has just gone off to university and has a boyfriend with a flash car; whose father – a middle manager at Greenland frozen foods – is poignantly petty of ambition and of marital morality; who sees a lot and understands most of it and, in his way, is blundering towards being a grown-up.

Mitchell’s previous novel, Cloud Atlas, was the bookies’ and – by all accounts – the ‘people’s’ favourite to win the Man Booker prize two years ago. It missed out, but became a book-group favourite. It was impossible, for a short period, to take public transport without seeing someone with their snout buried in the paperback. This was a serious literary novel that was also fantastically readable.

It’s a cliché of criticism to say that the novelist sets himself a task, or a problem to solve, and that the success of the novel depends on the extent to which he succeeds in solving it. Mitchell goes about this more literally, and more playfully, than most. Each of his books so far – be they the threaded short stories of Ghostwritten, the almost medieval taxonomy of mental states structuring number9dream, or the matryoshka doll of Cloud Atlas – has been a formal challenge as well as a narrative exercise; each has had a ‘secret architecture’.

Mitchell’s trajectory has been away from difficulty, however, rather than towards it. The structural complexity has sometimes increased, but the tricksiness (number9dream, certainly, would be a challenging choice for a book group) has, line by line, waned. This new novel is more direct of utterance than anything before.

In Black Swan Green, each of the thirteen chapters covers a month (you get January twice). Each of those stands alone as a short story – part of Mitchell’s declared premise early in the writing process – but they build up together into a novel. In the chapter called ‘Souvenirs’, in which Jason tags along with his father on a desolating business trip to Lyme Regis, the notion is dropped into the story:

The Fossil Shop’s fab. It sells conch shells with titchy red bulbs inside, but they were £4.75 and blowing all my money on one souvenir’d’ve been daft. (Instead I bought a series of thirteen dinosaur postcards. Each one’s got a different dinosaur, but if you put them end to end in order, the background landscape joins up and forms a frieze. Moran’ll be pretty jealous.)

That quote includes a knowing nod to the structure, but also gives a flavour of the language. What is so impressive in Black Swan Green, even more than in Cloud Atlas, is how entirely the formal artifice accommodates a naturalistic, and a thoroughly felt, story about human beings. Jason’s world, and the language in which he describes it – a sustained dramatic monologue, in effect – seem to me wholly enough imagined to have been remembered. In fact, it’s a fair bet that, in most of the important details, it is remembered. This is early Eighties childhood to the last bite of the Double Decker; the short flight of the crumpled packet of Monster Munch thrown across the classroom; the bewildering and exciting awkwardness of the first kiss after the school disco.

Black Swan Green is, as its protagonist would put it, ace.

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