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Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell

Sarah Johnson | 01.09.2006

Cover: Black Swan GreenReview by Sarah Johnson

A delicious, semi-autobiographical novel unfolds between the covers of David Mitchell's fourth book, Black Swan Green. The 13 interlinked short stories swell to create a sizeable accomplishment. The book charts a year (1982) in the life of Jason Taylor, a 13 year old growing up in a small Worcestershire village. Running alongside the usual problems that one would expect - an annoying big sister, problems with girls and the constant hum of expectant machismo - lies a stammer. Jason calls it 'The Hangman' due to its tendency to strangle his voice. Whilst a boy himself, Mitchell suffered similarly and describes with simple effectiveness how it impacts on Jason's life.

The answer's a piece of piss, it's ninety nine. But 'ninety-nine' is a double-N word. A double-stammer. Hangman wanted revenge for my stay of execution. He'd slid his fingers into my tongue and was clasping my throat and pinching the veins that take oxygen into my brain. When Hangman's like that I'd look a total flid if I tried to spit the word out.'

"A hundred and one, sir?"(1)

The tricks, tactics and techniques that Jason uses to get around his stammer were familiar to me as I read through the book, and Jason's rich inner life compounds this reflective existence. People who stammer tend to be highly self-aware and perceptive and Jason is no exception, picking up on the subtlest changes in his environment.

'Something vicious'd got into her voice,' Mitchell writes in reference to Jason's mother, 'It pulled the knot in my guts so tight I still can't loosen it.' (2)

Written using Jason's strong narrative, Mitchell also displays an ear for dialogue that sparkles from the page. From teenage one-upmanship in the park to the spiky barbs that fire between the adults around him, this is a book in which language and the issues surrounding it take centre stage.

Mitchell, himself still a mild stammerer, has come to terms with his own difficulties. "Whatever one's disability or impediment, I'm thinking more and more these days that, instead of viewing them as an enemy to be vanquished, it's a whole lot more healthy to view them as informants and, in an odd way, friends." (3)

1 Pg 51, Black Swan Green, David Mitchell, Sceptre, 2006
2 Pg 127-8, Black Swan Green, David Mitchell, Sceptre, 2006

From the Autumn 2006 issue of 'Speaking Out', page 18