Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

#19 in my book challenge for the year is the ubiquitously reviewed Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. He wrote three previous novels, the first and third of which were nominated for the Man Booker prize. Most writers do their autobiographical stuff first, and move on to more complicated stuff. Mitchell, whose previous three novels are both lauded and derided for their intricacy, saved his autobiographical bildungsroman for his fourth book. He and others have noted how unusual this is. The benefit to this method is that it’s a really well-written personal novel. The drawback is that it’s frequently so well-written that it ejected me from the narrative, which was told in what is supposed to be the voice of a 13-year- old boy in 1982 suburban England. Yes, the character is a poet, and yes, he has developed a complex interior life in reaction to his stammering problem. Neither of these, though, completely convinced me that certain sentences and certain insights were congruent with the 13-year-old narrator. For example, “Mr. Nixon, the headmaster, dashed past the doorway, emitting fumes of anger and tweed.” and “….the villagers wanted the Gypsies to be gross, so the grossness of what they’re not acts as a stencil for what they are.” It became clear as I read that Mitchell had set himself a difficult task, at which I think he partially succeeded–trying to write in the voice a boy who aspires to be a good writer, but isn’t there yet. In the end, though, I liked the book so well, and the characters in it, that I gave in and dismissed any quibbles that the voice wasn’t consistently believable. The book is the definition of bittersweet, veering between sadness and humor, with great characters.

Reviews, discussions, and interviews (strangely Seattle-centric links via Blog of a Bookslut):
Entertainment Weekly
CBC Canada
The Guardian: The Digested Read
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Seattle Times
Christian Science Monitor
The Stranger
New York Observer
Village Voice
The Book Standard
Seattle Weekly
The New Yorker

2 Responses to “Black Swan Green by David Mitchell”

  1. carolyn Says:

    mitchell has also pointed out in interviews that it’s not really a bildungsroman as such — not really “coming of age”… because his character isn’t growing or advancing from childhood into young manhood: he stays 13 throughout.

    i really loved it. i think it’s by far the best thing he’s written yet.

  2. girldetective Says:

    I think his character DID grow over the course of the novel, and did advance into a sort of adulthood. Yes, he was only 13 throughout, but he was most definitely older and wiser at the end.