David Mitchell's fourth novel is an honest and personal account of a 13-year old boy, Jason Taylor, growing up in the early 1980s in the 'one-horse' village of Black Swan Green, Worcestershire. Jason's life has never been easy - he possesses a stammer and a decidedly sensitive streak, making him rich pickings for the vile school bully, Ross Wilcox, and his braying followers.
Mitchell has again written a novel that is almost impossible to dislike. Jason is a fascinating character, torn between his conscience and his desire to fit in (represented by 'Unborn Twin' and 'Maggot', respectively), and is somebody who can find humour in even the most miserable situations.
This book touches on serious issues (the Falklands, bullying) but is ultimately a slight tale, and although it is beautifully written, its structure is somewhat episodic. The narrative flows unhindered, but doesn't go anywhere in particular - there are no denouments, and we are left simply with an image of Jason as a stronger figure than he was a the beginning.
That aside, the novel excels in its realism, humour and empathy. In fact, Mitchell's empathy for Jason Taylor is so pronounced that one wonders whether the book is largely autobiographical. Are Jason Taylor and David Mitchell the same person? We may never know, but it is a credit to David Mitchell that we keep asking ourselves that question throughout.
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