Childhood, Family, School, and Personal Will: David Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green

By Daniel Garrett

Black Swan Green
A novel by David Mitchell
Random House, NY 2006
ISBN 1-4000-6379-5
294 pages

“Kids can never complain about unfairness ’cause everyone knows kids always complain about that.”
—Jason in Black Swan Green

David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green is the story of a stuttering boy with an appreciation for nature and an interest in poetry, Jason, and his family, time at school, and life in a Worcestershire village in England. He lives amidst a decent family, with a father who goes out to work, and a mother who stays at home, and an attractive, teasing older sister; and Jason is not prepared for the games of cruelty and power that take place at school. He tries to avoid attention, to be accepted, to fit in; but, of course there are things about him that put some of the tough kids off—although Jason likes girls and sports, he can be tentative, withdrawn, and he is friends with one or two of the other nerdy boys. Jason is beginning to have an inner life, to be aware of his own feelings and to decide his own values; and that is the kind of thing that is sensed, though not always understood, and certainly not accepted, by bullies.

Some people hate “freedom” and “individual destiny” and “introspection” and “privacy”—and not because they suggest the selfish or the strange, but, rather, the kind of will and strength that cannot be mapped or predicted. Often the haters become bullies and ideologues; and there are different kinds of bullies and ideologues: and they can wrap themselves in the robes of priests or the uniforms of soldiers, in the language of business or that of idealistic reformers and revolutionaries. They can be pretend to be nothing more than neighborhood boys and girls, wanting to “keep it real.” They are the frightened monsters who crop up in almost all cultures and plague human civilization.

“If I was speaking to another thirteen-year-old and said the word ‘melancholy’ to avoid stammering on ‘sad,’ for example, I’d be a laughingstock ’cause kids aren’t s’posed to use adult words like ‘melancholy.’”

Black Swan Green’s Jason

“Truth is everywhere, like seeds of trees; even deceits contain elements of truth. But the eye is clouded by the quotidian, by prejudice, by worryings, scandal, predation, passion, ennui, and, worst, television.”

Black Swan Green’s Madame Crommelynck

“What kind of citizens are you going to make?”

Black Swan Green’s Mr. Kempsey

Jason in Black Swan Green damages a watch his father had given him, a family heirloom, but he is too afraid to admit it to his father, imagining tremendous anger. On one of his excursions, Jason hurts his leg, and meets an old woman who helps him with a poultice. Jason is attracted to a girl, and is curious but ignorant about sex, and then sees the lovemaking of a young couple. Jason is also befriended by an eccentric Belgian woman who gives him advice about poetry and art. On another day, Jason’s school bag is taken by a dog that brings it to a gypsy camp, where Jason meets some of the people who have lately become the focus of fear and condemnation in town. Meanwhile, tensions grow more significant in the marriage of his parents, and his mother gets a job for which she is suited, and his father has a career crisis. The highs and lows of youth occur in the shadow of increasing threats from the school’s bullies, whose human complexity the reader cannot see—unless that complexity comes in the form of their hypocrisy: is their complexity hidden, or does it not exist?

In Black Swan Green Jason realizes that he contains different personalities but can, through his choices, through facing the truth and taking a stand, determine what his own fundamental character will be. The novel in which he lives is a portrait of early 1980s England, under Margaret Thatcher, at the time of the Falklands war: and her use of power, and that of the villagers in relation to the gypsies, and the treatment of Jason by the school bullies may share some correspondence—but such connections are not forced by the author David Mitchell; rather, they are left to the intuition of the reader in this convincing, funny, smart book.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett wrote comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader; and on international film for Offscreen and Cinetext. Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.