Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (294 pgs, Random House) answers that very question. I choose this book to read as a part of the NY Times Notable Challenge, and I'm certainly glad I did!
Black Swan Green is the name of the small village in Worcestershire where 13-year-old Jason Taylor lives. It's a sleepy little village minus the swans. The year is 1982, and Jason is trying to navigate his way through a maze of difficulties: bullies at school, trying to blend in, overcoming a stammer that could label him forever, parents at war with each other, an older sister that calls him "The Thing", a war in the Falklands, and gypsies that have taken up residence is the village. Can life really be so difficult at 13? You bet it can!
Eliot Bolivar is a poet that submits his writing to the local parish magazine. He is talented and writes eloquently. And he is actually Jason Taylor, our 13-year-old antagonist. But really, could a kid hold up his head in school if he admits to being a POET? I think not!
This book is chocked full of insight. It is exactly one year in the life of Jason Taylor. Mitchell's writing is so fantastic, you can actually see through the eyes of this boy. At first, it was a bit difficult to understand some of the British phrasing and terms, but that didn't stop any enjoyment I felt reading this book. When Jason was called on to read aloud in class, I actually could FEEL his fear in the pit of MY stomach. Trying to navigate through school without being seen, not popular enough to be part of the in-crowd, and not detested enough to be one of the lepers, Jason tries hard to fit in. And he has to fit in in a way that lets him live with himself.
One of my favorite passages in the book comes right at the end: "The world's a Headmaster who works on your faults. I don't mean in a mystical or a Jesus way. More how you'll keep tripping over a hidden step, over and over, till you finally understand: Watch out for that step! Everything that's wrong with us, if we're too selfish or too Yessir, Nosir, Three bags full sir or too anything, that's a hidden step. Either you suffer the consequences of not noticing your fault forever, or , one day, you DO notice it, and fix it. Joke is, once you get it into your brain about THAT hidden step and think, Hey, life isn't such a shithouse after all again, then BUMP! Down you go, a whole new flight of hidden steps. There are always more."
The entire book is filled with this type of writing and insight. The characters are all well-rounded, simple yet complex. This book will make you laugh and it will make you cry. And it will make you exceedingly glad that you never have to go through that horrible time in life again. I would recommend it whole-heartedly! 4.5/5
(this review was orinally published on my blog, Stephanie's Confessions of a Bookaholic)