Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

This is a review of Black Swan Green, by the lovely David Mitchell.

The book
Black Swan Green is a little town in Worcestershire that doesn’t have any swans. In Black Swan Green we meet Jason, who is 13, a poet and stammerer. He is growing up in the early 80s and living with his mother, father and older sister Julia. He is trying to navigate his teenage life in the village and the social hierarchy in the town, and among his classmates, while trying to avoid stammering in front of his class mates, because he knows it will lead to ridicule. And while he sort of deals with the microcosm of Black Swan Green and his school he also has to deal with the macrocosm, as the Falklands war starts and it brings the world to Black Swan Green.

I really liked this. It’s a sort of semi-autobiographical novel in that David Mitchell also stammers and grew up in Worcestershire as well. He also grew up in the same period as Jason, so he is familiar with the vernacular used by teenaged boys at the time and it really permeates the novel, which makes it feel very accurate and true. Jason also puts more importance on things that they require, which also made the book feel true to life, it feels like something a kid does. You feel like if you fuck up something it’s the end of the world.

This is also Mitchell’s most realistic novel. It’s very much a coming-of-age novel which focuses on the personal growth of Jason. It does have some suspicious and weird elements, but they are for the most part explained at the end of the novel. And the novel is told through Jason’s eyes, so he might also make the instances of weirdness more mystical than they really are.

Mitchell likes to reuse characters, so he will have a main character from one book show up as a small character somewhere else. In this novel Hugo Lamb is the cousin of Jason and Julia and he appears as a main character in the Bone Clocks. It made me wonder how much Mitchell plans these things. Because in the Bone Clocks Lamb is a really creepy sociopath who thinks about profit over everything else. He doesn’t feature much in Black Swan Green, but you can definitely see how he manipulates people and how he has the tendencies towards the behavior he displays in the Bone Clocks. There is also reference to Robert Frobisher and Vyvyan Ayrs from Cloud Atlas. I think there are more, but those are the ones that I noticed and recognized. I really like that Mitchell does this. It’s a great little Easter egg for the reader and it makes it feel like all the books exist in the same universe, no matter how different they are. I like to think that Mitchell has a huge map on the wall of his office where he writes out his books, his characters and plans out where the different characters will play a major role or a small role.

I really love the relationship between Jason and his sister Julia. She’s five years older than him and has the sort of contemptuous regard you have for a 13-year-old when you’re that age. He seems to find her baffling and disgusting for being a girl and doing things that 18-year-olds do. He also seems to idolize her for standing up to their father and uncle. Julia is strong and competent and I really liked her. I also liked how their relationship developed. They had that moment I think you often have with your sibling where they go from being your annoying brother or sister to becoming an ally and friend. And Julia clearly loves Jason and wants to look out for him even after going to University in Scotland. I really like reading about sibling relationships because I like reading about relationships that are not romantic relationships. I don’t think they get as much attention, or I’m just not as good at finding them as I should be.

I found the way Mitchell wrote about stammering really interesting. In Jason’s mind it is linked to a game of hangman, so he refers to his stammer as Hangman. It sort of takes the form of a man who stops him from saying certain words, and Jason spars with Hangman to trick him and work around him. It also seemed like the stammer was a sign to Jason’s dad that Jason was somehow a failure. Jason’s dad isn’t a great guy, but he seems to blame Jason for his own stammer and doesn’t like it when Jason flubs a word because he is reminded of it.


In conclusion I really liked this. I think the Bone Clocks is still my favorite Mitchell, but this one was really good as well. I enjoyed it and I look forward to reading the rest of his bibliography.