"Wish I could be thirteen again," the father fatuously remarks in "Black Swan Green," David Mitchell's brilliant new coming-of-age tale. "Then," his son, Jason, thinks darkly, "you've obviously forgotten what it's like." Mitchell, a Man Booker Prize nominee, clearly hasn't forgotten a minute of the humiliation and turmoil of adolescence, and he uses it all to create a genuinely memorable hero.
There are so many books starring teen narrators burdened by painful secrets, it's a wonder that bookstore fiction sections don't smell of Clearasil. Jason has two: he stammers and he writes poetry - and if either gets out, it will make his life in the village of Black Swan Green a pit of such misery that Dante would wince in sympathy.
The story lurches through a year of Jason's life in 1982 England. Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands war swirl together with parental fights, graveyard initiations, a Belgian countess, and Gypsies, which Mitchell then distills into a kind of essence of boyhood. And while Jason is hardly an average teen, he's not a freakish prodigy. (Readers will figure out his parents' problems long before he does.) He's a smart kid whose speech impediment makes him "shrivel up like a plastic wrapper in a fire." Sounds like middle school to me. Grade: A