I almost fell off the ultrasound table when I learned I was having a boy. I’d always assumed that I’d have a girl (odd, since the real odds are 50/50). Surprise quickly gave way to curiosity; I knew and understood girls implicitly, but boys? I‘d only thought of them as wild things—kind of smelly, rough, and insensitive. So during the last several months of my pregnancy, I began keenly observing boys of all ages—at parks, restaurants, shopping malls, the library. I saw in boy culture more sweetness than I’d imagined, and more camaraderie, tolerance, and less competition.
I thought a lot about the world of boys while reading David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green. Jason Taylor is a 13-year-old English boy who narrates the story as he navigates a year of middle school in the book’s titular town in what seems to be the mid 1980s. For Jason, every day presents an obstacle course of potential social missteps that could single him out and make him prey to the town bullies. But his one big problem is that he stammers. This condition gives him tremendous anxiety and once discovered, makes him a certain victim (not just from kids, but also from many teachers as well). Overcoming his outcast status and bullying (and to some degree the stammering) is a large part of the story. The other is the slow disintegration of his parents’ marriage, which contributes to his isolation.
Jason both amused me and broke my mama heart. He had so many very understandable anxieties, and worked so hard to manage them all on his own. I found in him all the sweetness and sensitivity I now know boys can have, along with a bit of stink too. His first forays into love and lust were funny and endearing.
I’ve read several other David Mitchell novels: Cloud Atlas (my favorite so far), The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and The Bone Clocks. As ever, Mitchell’s writing is so… springy—taut, fine-tuned, and endlessly inventive (though he over-adverbed me in Thousand Autumns). While I read, I am always as much fascinated by what he is doing with language as I am by the plot.
Black Swan Green seems at least loosely autobiographical; Jason finds a mastery and release in the written word that he cannot achieve in the spoken. I’ve read that Mitchell stammered as a child, and perhaps still does. Certainly BSG stands out from other Mitchell books in its more straightforward narrative without some of the more fantastic aspects or unusual structures of his other novels, which makes it seem more “real” or possibly autobiographical.
I’ve heard some people say that they are intimidated to read Mitchell (especially Cloud Atlas) because of the unusual and overlapping things he does with character and structure. Black Swan Green is a good one to start with if you are one of them. You get all the enjoyment of his language and storytelling without the (alleged) weirdness of structure. But pay attention—characters appear in this book that will pop up in others. It’s the other half of the fun of reading David Mitchell.