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Black Swan Green, a novel by award-winning author, David Mitchell, tells the story of a year in the life of a new teenager. This is not a children’s book by any stretch of the imagination – it’s a book that left me ruminating on the pitfalls, perils and potential that come with adolescence.

It is 1982 when the book opens; Jason Taylor is 13 years old and at one point in the book, he really wants to see Chariots of Fire at the cinema. The first time he’s supposed to see it, his dad has to work late, then returns too drunk to go to the movies. The second time’s the charm for Jason; after hanging out with his mother at her store for an afternoon, they set off to see the film together.

Which is fine, until he notices something while standing in line.

“Ninety or a hundred people were ahead of us. Kids, mostly, in twos, threes, and fours. A few old-age pensioners too. A few couples. The only boy queueing with his mother was me. Wished it wasn’t so obvious I was with her.”

Unfortunately, the queue is so long, they’re turned away at the entrance and Jason is once again denied the chance to see English college students run in the 1924 Olympics.

Mitchell’s earlier work included Cloud Atlas, a novel so opaquely filled with genius that you come away knowing you’ve read a masterpiece, even if you don’t know much what it was about. Black Swan Green, Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical novel set in Maggie Thatcher’s England, is a significant departure from the opacity of brilliance – it is a rich and vivid portrait of that first year of adolescence.

In Black Swan Green, young Jason has a stutter that enhances his unpopularity; his parents fight constantly; he’s always trying to figure out his place in his world. And his is a social position that shifts and moves all the time.

An act of foolhardy bravery leaves him popular for a moment. But the act of attempting to see a movie with his mother catastrophically plunges his social standing….

“‘Jason Taylor’ – Ross Wilcox’s breath smelt like a bag of ham – ‘goes to the pictures with Mummy!'”

Even the biggest losers in the school feel emboldened by Jason’s glaring lapse…

“It’s one thing Ross Wilcox giving you a going-over in public….But if a Mister Average like Leon Cutler slags you off and doesn’t even care if you can hear, your credibility is bloody bankrupt.”

When reading Black Swan Green, I realized with a bit of panic that (more…)

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