Observer review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green, David Mitchell's follow-up to the phenomenally successful Cloud Atlas is an ambitious study of adolescence, says Adam Phillips

Black Swan Green
David Mitchell
Sceptre £16.99, pp371

'It is the bliss of childhood,' William Gaddis wrote in his great novel, The Recognitions, 'that we are being warped most when we know it the least.' Novels written from the child's point of view are never written by children; they are written by adults for whom this particular bliss has long been over. Something about that warping is now apparently known about and has prompted the writer to recreate it, to write more knowingly about a time of relative naivety. Children are not interested in childhood, but they can be used to say things in novels that no one else can say, things that are best said by children.They are particularly useful as novelistic devices today because they know about two things that the adult world is currently obsessed by: fame and erotic life. They know what it is to be the centre of attention, to believe that the world that matters is preoccupied by them; they are, for good reasons to do with their own survival, acutely attentive to what goes on between their parents and between their parents and other people.

Most children begin as success stories and then notice that there are other people in the world. David Mitchell's interesting new novel is a story told by a 13-year-old boy about the year in his life when his parents split up. But it is written by a novelist living in the aftermath of a huge success (his previous novel, Cloud Atlas, sold 40,000 copies in hardback, won four major literary awards and was shortlisted for a further six). The boy is an aspiring poet with a stammer. It's notable that Mitchell, in his previous three novels, has been an unusually fluent writer, a virtuoso of many voices, but with something indistinct about his own.

Any novelist who sees artistic ambitions as somehow different from commercial success is clearly in a difficult position. The successful writer is either the most servile writer in the culture, the one most adept at giving people what they want, i.e. not upsetting them, or he is the one most able to articulate their most pressing concerns, or both.

Black Swan Green is both written by and partly about someone who is troubled about all this, about the point of writing and the point of recognition. The 'joke' about the village of Black Swan Green in Worcestershire, the county that Mitchell grew up in, is that there are no swans. By telling us this 'joke' more than once, Mitchell is inviting us to wonder what's missing from his book, what might be misleading about his title.

Novelists, one of the characters remarks in this overly self-conscious book, 'is schizoids, lunatics, liars', 'is' rather than 'are' because the speaker is foreign and this lets the writer lump them together. What is most interesting about Black Swan Green is that it is written by a novelist whose success seems to have left him with a sense of failure, with a disillusionment about his writing. Like his older-child hero, Mitchell seems to be struggling in this book to keep his spirits up. It is this that makes the novel so poignant.

Having set it in the year of the Falklands war, Mitchell makes much in the book of getting the songs, TV programmes, the biscuits and cigarettes right. Black Swan Green charts a year in the life of a sensitive boy apt to be bullied, who writes poems under the pen name Eliot Bolivar, but whose real name is Jason Taylor. He has a sister who leaves home to go to university and parents who eventually split up as it is discovered that the father has been having an affair.

Like Mitchell's previous novels, it veers between genres. There are the Mervyn Peake-like gothic horrors and characters and bits and pieces of social realism. Jason is a boy who can have high-level, rather arch discussions about literature with an older bohemian lady called Madame Crommelynck and who can also find himself, DH Lawrence-like, in a gypsy encampment having had his rucksack (and homework) stolen by a dog. He gets into scrapes with friends and schoolmasters, kisses a girl for the first time, discovering his nerve just as his parents' rather allegorically bourgeois marriage falls apart.

The most successful scenes in the book are scenes of family life and Mitchell is at his best as a caricaturist. He has a better ear for the smarmy and the self-important, like Jason's father, than for the more softly spoken. 'The principle, o daughter of mine, is a universal constant,' he pontificates over the dinner table. 'If you don't keep records, you can't make progress assessments. True for retailers, true for educators, true for the military, true for any systems operator. One bright day in your brilliant career ... you'll learn this the hard way and think, if only I'd listened to my dear wise father. How right he was.'

In this young-writer-breaks-out-of-stiflingly-philistine-home story, Jason, perhaps unsurprisingly, gets most of the best lines. But using a child narrator, especially a 13-year-old who is on the cusp of a different kind of consciousness, frees Mitchell to be gauche and shrewd - early adolescence is inevitably the age of false notes and brashness - while often allowing him too much knowingness.

And if the adolescent is a poet as well, the opportunities for archness are overwhelming. So Jason is as capable of the fresh perception - 'Woods don't bother with fences or borders. Woods are... fences and borders' - as he is of the most maudlin sentimentality and pretentiousness - 'The world won't leave things be. It's always injecting endings into beginnings.' There are wonderfully observed moments - 'The crows parascended up and off' - and scenes in which Mitchell's facility for doing the different voices pays off.

But the striking sentences and snatches of dialogue are too often waylaid by cutesy aperçus - 'The earth's a door if you press your ear against it' - and the narrator's wish to be too cunningly callow. Children, as Brecht said, learn to pretend to be children, to be the children their parents think they want, very early. Mitchell, as the guiding intelligence of the book, is too impressed by Jason's pretence to see beyond it.

Mitchell has wanted, I think, to do a very ambitious thing in this novel, which is to write a book about a young adolescent - and the young adolescent as natural poet - as though it was written by a young adolescent, but he hasn't quite found the voice for it. A young adolescent finding his voice by experimenting with other voices is a useful device for a novelist.

But a young adolescent is even more promising for contemporary fiction because he is someone who doesn't want to be too accessible or too unpopular. Mitchell's fans should see this as a transitional novel in what is already an intriguing career. Hopefully, in his next book, he will be more willing to get the reader into some kind of trouble.

Adam Phillips, a former child psychotherapist, is the author of Going Sane (Penguin)

David Mitchell: A life


1969, Southport, Merseyside


MA in comparative literature, University of Kent


Taught English to technical students in Hiroshima, Japan, for eight years.


Ghostwritten (1999)

number9dream (2001)

Cloud Atlas (2003)

Black Swan Green (2006)


· Ghostwritten won the 1999 Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was shortlisted for Guardian First Book Award in the same year.

· number9dream was shortlisted for the 2002 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and 2001 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction.

· Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book). It also won the 2005 British Book Awards Literary Fiction prize and the Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year.

· In 2000, Mitchell was named as one of 20 Best of Young British Novelists by Granta magazine.

Adam Phillips

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Observer review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

With a dramatic use of time-shifts and literary forms, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas both dazzles and perplexes, says Hephzibah Anderson

Hephzibah Anderson

29, Feb, 2004 @1:28 AM

Inside every psychopath is a jazz buff trying to get out

Adam Lively reviews Ghostwritten - A Story In Ten Sections by David Mitchell

Adam Lively

08, Aug, 1999 @5:22 PM

Observer review: number9dream by David Mitchell

David Mitchell lets his imagination run riot in number9dream, but can he control the results?

Robert MacFarlane

11, Mar, 2001 @2:39 PM

Article image
Observer review: My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey

Peter Carey combines an Australian literary hoax with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to produce My Life as a Fake

Hephzibah Anderson

14, Sep, 2003 @1:09 AM

Article image
Observer review: The Scheme for Full Employment by Magnus Mills

Magnus Mills revisits the time before New Labour was new in The Scheme for Full Employment

David Jays

23, Feb, 2003 @3:38 AM

Article image
Observer review: The Voices by Susan Elderkin

Excess dingo lingo spoils Susan Elderkin's ambitious portrayal of Australia, The Voices

Geraldine Bedell

06, Jul, 2003 @12:29 AM

Naturally, his pillow talk is all about insects...

Niall Duthie's Lobster Moth flits enticingly between a recuperating First World War soldier and the actor preparing to play him in a present-day film.

Joanna Griffiths

21, Nov, 1999 @5:35 PM

Article image
Observer review: Donne: The Reformed Soul, by John Stubbs

A persecuted Catholic revered as a Protestant preacher, a father of 12 who damned sex, John Donne is brought brilliantly to life in John Stubbs's Donne: The Reformed Soul, says Hilary Spurling.

Hilary Spurling

30, Jul, 2006 @12:18 AM

Article image
Observer review: Neruda: A Passion for Life by Adam Feinstein

Adam Feinstein's dazzling Neruda: A Passion for Life sheds much-needed light on one of the most complicated of modern cultural figures.

Kelly Grovier

24, Jul, 2004 @11:30 PM

Robert McCrum: Warning: the words you are about to read may be stolen

Robert McCrum: On the literary Dow Jones, glittering prizes go together with charges of plagiarism like bull markets and the Serious Fraud Office.

Robert McCrum

03, Dec, 2006 @12:30 AM