Thursday, 26 February 2009

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Well, I'd usually start with a plot synopsis, but there wasn't really a plot to this. It's the story of Jason Taylor, a 13 year old boy living in a small suburban town in the UK in the early 1980's. Well, Jason is the narrator of the story anyway. Each chapter of the book covers one month of Jason's life and goes into great detail about the things that worry him whether they be seemingly trivial or important on a global scale.

Jason at first seems to live in a seemingly idyllic family life, in the best estate in Black Swan Green with his Mum, Dad and older sister, who he doesn't get on with and calls him 'thing' quite frequently. There is a moment at the start when a mysterious phone call in his Dad's study is answered by Jason, and ominously, the phone is put down without anybody speaking. Never a good sign, in a book or in reality! And it becomes clear very early on that Jason has a stutter, so struggles with certain words. He personifies this as 'hangman', and it crops up throughout the book.
"Apart from the Russians starting a nuclear war, my biggest fear is if hangman gets interested in 'j' words cause then I wont even be able to say my own name"
This stutter is such a big deal to Jason because he is desperately trying to stay normal at school and is aware how difficult his life would be if he stuttered when he spoke. He would become a laughing stock and relegated to what he would all 'the leper kids'. Jason would love to be popular but is most afraid of being at the bottom of the playground hierarchy.
This is where the brilliance of this book comes into its own for me. Its the detail of a thirteen year old's life. Who doesn't remember the hell of having to wear the right clothes, use the right words, associate with the right people and just generally be seen to be the same as everyone else. Different was not really an option! And fitting yourself into the playground hierarchy was a tangle of do's and don'ts in itself.
"Kids who are really popular get called by their first names, so Nick Yew's just 'Nick'. Kids who are 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. Its 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 would damage my own standing."
Each chapter deals with a different event in Jason's life. There's the visits to the speech therapist about his stutter, a visit from his more well off cousins, his attempts to join a popular gang and the reasons this fails, first crushes, first kisses and other such stuff that is so important to thirteen year old boys.
Interspersed with this are bigger issues, such as the devastating effects of war on the families whose children don't return (this story is set during the Falklands war), the attitude of the suburban middle class town to an influx of gypsies and how Jason comes to see them from a different perspective, and running through this is the constant shadow of marriage breakdown and divorce which comes to a head at the conclusion of the novel.
I actually grew up not far from the Malvern Hills, where this is supposed to be set, and although I'm about five years younger than Jason (I would have been Eight in 1982) I can recognise all the cultural references and teenage slang. Words such as epic, ace, spaz, and the game British Bulldogs. There's even a reference to schools banning it, which was the case all over. Two many broken bones! There are many more references I could list, most of which provoked a nostalgic smile, but that could get slightly boring.
All in all, it was a fascinating read, even though not much happened. I was gripped all the way through. Part of the enjoyment for me though was the nostalgia and I'd be interested in how this book comes across to a foreign reader, or a much younger reader.


Simon Savidge said...

I have avoided David Mitchell is that I think I am one of the very few people who loathed Cloud Atlas. This sounds interesting though so might pick it up if ever i see it second hand. Great review.

Anonymous said...

Sounds interesting. I'll have to look for it at the library.