Adolescent angst during the Margaret Thatcher–inflected year of 1982 is the subject of two-time Booker nominee Mitchell’s lively (autobiographical?) fourth novel.
It contrasts strikingly with the matter, and manner, of the intricate “systems novels” (Ghostwritten, 2000; Number9Dream, 2001; Cloud Atlas, 2004) that made his reputation, if only in the racy anguished voice of its 13-year-old narrator Jason Taylor. Jason, who grows up in a sleepy, quaintly named eponymous Worcestershire village, suffers from a mortifying speech defect (he stammers), his older sister Julia’s stony condescension, his schoolmates’ casual malice and repeated outcroppings of inopportune “boners.” In short, he’s a kid—albeit, in Mitchell’s deft hands, an intriguingly sentient and thoughtful one. There are wonderful scenes of sexual near-discovery and boyish bravado set in the woods near Jason’s home (in the vicinity of the Malvern Hills immortalized in William Langland’s medieval poem “Piers Plowman”), which segue into more individual focus as we observe Jason’s healing encounter with a reclusive “old witch,” strained relations with his control-freak Dad (a harried supermarket manager) and weary Mum (who wants her independence) and an educative brief relationship with an aged bohemian (Madame Crommelnyck) who happens upon the poems Jason furtively writes (as “Eliot Bolivar”) and—in the grandest of manners—undertakes to educate him. The episodic narrative thus proceeds through numerous embarrassments and enlightenments, within the confusing contexts of the Falklands War (Great National Crusade, or chauvinist folly?), Black Swan Green’s communal plans to regulate the lives of its new gypsy population and Jason’s painful adjustment to his own emergent life and the fact that the stable family relationship that has always sheltered as well as smothered him is a thing equally capable of growth, change and confusion.
Great Britain’s Catcher in the Rye—and another triumph for one of the present age’s most interesting and accomplished novelists.