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In the hands of a master, 13 becomes a golden age

Black Swan Green
By David Mitchell
Random House, 294 pp., $23.95

David Mitchell is a writer of high-wire literary feats who disdains any kind of structural safety net. Twice nominated for the Man Booker Prize, he can balance multiple points of view, huge expanses of time, and shifting locales like a prize juggler. His celebrated ``Cloud Atlas" thrilled legions of reviewers and triggered proclamations of genius.

With his fourth novel, the virtuoso ``Black Swan Green," Mitchell clinches the most versatile crown as he narrows his scope to the world in a grain of mustard seed. His single point of view hones in on one year in a small English village in Worcestershire.

And what a dazzling point of view it is. Jason Taylor, 13, is a Holden Caulfield for the Margaret Thatcher era. His family baggage includes an equally Salingeresque brilliant older sister, an unhappy mother , and a clueless father -- all guaranteed qualifications for precociousness. Bullied and unpopular, Jason is a crackerjack social scientist able to parse degrees of coolness with a single sentence. ``It's all ranks, being a boy, like the army." Such people-smart instincts caution him to publish his poems under the pseudonym Eliot Bolivar. If his classmates knew the poet's true identity, ``they'd gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone."

What really dooms Jason, however, is his stammer. He can't tell his father what he really thinks because `` if I stammer with Dad, he gets that face he had when he got his Black & Decker Workmate home and found it was minus a crucial packet of screws."

In January, when the book begins, Jason's stammering is at its worst. During that cruelest month, he smashes the watch his grandfather always wore, even on the day he died. Alas, it's not just the watch that shatters: Tension colonizes the family dinner table; ``Mum was just sitting there . It didn't feel at all right." A phone rings in the forbidden territory of his father's office; when he picks it up, nobody answers. His sister Julia is about to go to college. Skating on the lake, he sees the ghost of the butcher's boy who fell through the ice. That the world is a puzzle is no more surprising than the curious fact that ``there aren't any actual swans in Black Swan Green."

As each month passes, more anxieties plague Jason's school days. He worries about being called upon; the school bus is torture; girls mystify him; his parents embarrass him. Still, teenage despair has moments of comic relief. When rich relatives visit, out come lamb chops with paper frills, and ``salt and pepper magically turn into `the condiments.' " In a distillation of the joys of childhood, he follows a bridle path looking for a rumored Roman tunnel and is gobsmacked by nature: `` Beautiful, it was, but boys aren't allowed to say `beautiful' 'cause it's the gayest word going." When he runs into the gelled, glossy-haired Dawn Madden, he's instantly smitten, a state that nevertheless fails to dull his powers of observation: ``There're gaps between me and Dawn Madden. Kingfisher Meadow's the poshest estate in Black Swan Green . . . . Her stepfather's farmhouse is the opposite of posh. I'm in . . . the top class at school. She's in [the] second from bottom. These gaps aren't easy to ignore. There are rules."

Rules that a 13-year-old struggles to understand. By the time the Falklands War breaks out, battles rage at home as well as abroad. His father's sleeping in the spare room; his mother takes a job in Cheltenham; his sister's left for Edinburgh. When a classmate's older brother dies in the conflict, Jason realizes that `` death killed the thrill of war." Out of such troubles spring important lessons -- ``not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right."

If, to Jason, little happens in ``Black Swan Green," to us readers everything happens. What first appear to be episodic scenes from a life soon accumulate weight and meaning to form a profound, satisfying whole. Led by one of the most endearing, smart, and funny young narrators ever to rise up from the pages of a novel, we move from Jason's idiosyncratic, exclusive viewpoint to universal truths. The always fresh and brilliant writing will carry readers back to their own childhoods. When his father says he wishes he were 13 again, Jason thinks, `` You've obviously forgotten what it's like." This enchanting novel makes us remember exactly what it was like. We root for Jason. We cheer for his touch of the poet, for the man we glimpse in the boy. Like him, we know that the world doesn't always make sense. And, like him, we agree that ``if swans weren't real, myths'd make them up."

Mameve Medwed's fourth novel, ``How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life," has just been published. She can be reached at www.mamevemedwed.com.

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