Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

Oct 2010

(Novel) Black Swan Green by: David Mitchell

(Reaction) Not Quite Old, Not Quite Young by: Antonio Conejos

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Adolescence is often seen as a tumultuous period in one's life, when a conspiracy of hormones, societal expectations and personal growth magnify every slight and emphasize every wrong. But perhaps even more confusing is that sliver of time between being a child and being a teenager, the in between period of not quites - not quite sure of who you are but definitely sure who you don't want to be, not quite understanding what's going on around you but understanding enough to know that it's bad, not quite ready to grow up but having to do so anyway.

Jason enters this time of not quites conscious about the changes being foisted upon him and his powerlessness to cope with them. Thus, he admires his sister (though he would be loath to admit that to her) because she is able to deftly handle the situation around her, "Life must be pretty brill for Julia... she can make other people do whatever she wants with words. Just words.

In contrast , Jason makes a mess of words. Due to the Hangman he is terrified of public speaking. While he is articulate in poetry, he is painfully aware that others will ridicule him for his work and thus keeps it a secret. Jason's words are powerless as he's either constantly shifting his language to fit in (and avoid his stutter) or hiding his true words behind the name of someone else (his pseudonym).

At first, Jason naturally feels pity for himself, in the dramatic but sincere way that only those in their pre-teens or teens can feel. He wonders about the dead, "Do they envy the living? Even me?" Yet so wretched does Jason feel that he can't fathom anyone - even those who will forever have no voice and are in a state they cannot change - envying his sorry lot. What Jason does not realize yet is that, unlike the dead, he has the time and ability to change and grow.

At the beginning of the novel, aging and death, are seen as mournful, sad affairs. This emphasizes Jason's initial impulse to cling to being a child, to remain the same. Change and growing old are associated together and both are sickening affairs. Jason, when staring change in the face (while his parents are having a particularly vicious fight) feels, perhaps in order of gravity, "sick, cold and old."

Both young and old yearn to resist change. Madame Crommleynck, is contemptuous of herself for trying to remain beautiful in a fading body; but try she does all the same, "Day by day by day it falls, until this vieille sorciere is all who remains, who uses cosmetician's potions to approximate her birth-gift."

As Black Swan Green progresses though, Jason slowly acclimates himself to the change around and within him. This is seen in his changing attitude towards aging and death. Eventually he sees death not as an end point but merely just another stage of life that falls away, "even death sort of dies." At the end of the novel he even acknowledges, perhaps with a hint of anger, that it is impossible to remain the same as life will always be in flux, "The world won't leave things be. It's always injecting endings into beginnings."

Jason ultimately reconciles himself to the fact of change by unburdening himself to Mrs. Gretton, who is the embodiment of the theme of growing old. She is described as, "Very old faces go muppety and sexless and their skin goes see-through."

Jason's visit to Mrs. Gretton combines two moments of Jason no longer being afraid of the situations in his life; and this fittingly culminates in the epiphany that the Hangman no longer has a noose around him. At this point he has found the courage to do the right thing in returning the money of Ross Wilcox and at the same time has made peace with change by returning to the old lady who frightened him so much at the beginning of the novel. He realizes then, "I hadn't stammered once, the whole time I'd been talking to Mrs. Gretton. S'pose it isn't Hangman who causes it? S'pose it's the other person? The other person's expectations... If I can reach this state of not caring, Hangman'll remove his finger from my lips."

Jason's realization that he has to meet no one's expectations but his own allows him to see things that other people ignore or simply dismiss. Early in the novel Jason explains to his cousin Hugo - the epitome of cool, that "There aren't any actual swans in Black Swan Green... It's a sort of village joke." Hugo then goes on to mock the village and Jason, who has promptly thrown up after smoking his first cigarette. Yet at the end of the novel Jason sees what everyone else (except for Squelch, the village idiot) has dismissed as a joke. "I [Jason] didn't see it for what it was at first... My brain grappled with the shape of the thing... A swan slid down its slope of air to meet its reflection."

The swan's flight is especially moving to Jason as throughout the novel he has associated moments of joy with flight and weightlessness. When he experiences the freedom of being home alone for the first time, he thinks to himself, "Listening to houses breath makes you weightless." Again by himself and exploring the woods, he soars in the most basic, but always thrilling, of aerial contraptions, "...weightlessness on a swing isn't bad." "Relief'd made gravity a bit weaker", when he finally confesses that he has broken his grandfather's watch (a sin he has carried with much guilt throughout the novel) and his father tells him that there are worse offenses. (It is a painful irony that Jason's relief comes at the expense of his father who passes judgment on the mess of his life, "It's a watch you broke!" Not a future. Not a life. Not a backbone.")

All these moments of failing gravity pale in comparison though to the elation of blasting off from the ground, careening wildly in contradictory directions, after talking to a girl for the first time, "Magnets don't need to understand magnetism... God. I'd apparently spoken to the girl... I fell a thousand feet up."

As we crash into adolescence by stumbling out of childhood, we begin to realize that what everyone used to dismiss as the village joke is impervious to doubters and the cacophany of others. That if whether we can fly or not doesn't depend on others but ourselves. "Ducks heckled the swan, but a swan only notices what it wishes to." In the final image of derision, a joke, made beautiful, Jason realizes that life has its swans, even if they are denied by others. They are the epic of humdrum life, "If swans weren't real myths'd make them up."


Black Swan Green is instantly relatable to all those who grew up on the wrong side of the "cool" railroad tracks of early adolescent life. There are numerous cliches on growing up, in fact the plot of the novel is perhaps best described as episodes of cliches strung together. This observation is not a knock at Black Swan Green though but rather a compliment. The novel takes painful paths (those we plodded down years ago) and finds truth, humor and perhaps a bit of vindication (You don't need to be a jerk to get the girl or compromise who you are to fit in. Or at least that's what I and the novel like to believe anyway.) Black Swan Green emphasizes not just the pains of growing up but the moments of flight as well, sending messages up to a kite with one's dad or a friend who sticks up for you against bullies.

Framing the hurts and the triumphs is the novel's melancholy language, sad and wistful , "An aeroplane glinted, mercury bright in the dark high blue." A quiet book about a not so quiet time in one's life, Black Swan Green is a pleasure to read.

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