In this rich autobiographical novel, David Mitchell has created what might be called the anti-Cider with Rosie: a picture of an English arcadia that, for the thirteen-year-old narrator Jason Taylor, is infused with menace and occasional glimpses of the ineffable. This landscape is beautiful in a wild, almost primeval way far removed from the traditional vision of the domesticated English countryside.
Chronicling one year (1982) in Jason's life in the dozy Worcestershire village that he and his middle-class family have made their home, Mitchell shows us the gradual getting of wisdom: about family bonds, first love, duplicity, cruelty, and courage and, from a Continental émigrée who lends Jason Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes to read, a different way of seeing things. Throughout the story, Mitchell deftly evokes the atmosphere of Thatcher's England: the build-up to the Falklands War is mirrored in the escalating spats between Jason's parents, and there are the first, ominous signs of the recession.
Mitchell's great talent for poetic description can be gauged from sentences like this: "Druggy pom-pom bees hovered in the lavender." Or this: "Sunlight on waves is drowsy tinsel." He inhabits his protagonist completely, but sometimes Jason's register seems too mature for even the most precocious thirteen-year-old, while at other points it fits him perfectly: for example, when he describes as a "guff" the sound made by a tight-fitting lid when you pull it off the tin, or when he watches a firework display: "Stalks climbed, then popblossomed into slow—slow--slow….motion Michaelmas daisies." Mitchell gives Jason a voice that mixes adolescent word-play, eighties slang, and local dialect words, a voice that wavers between middle-class and rural and reflects Jason's half-in and half-out position in the village, which, along with his stutter, makes him the prime victim for the local bullies.
Most of the characters are well-drawn, though some of them (like Hugo, Jason's cool but cruel cousin) make an appearance early on and then vanish for the rest of the story, while one seems to die in the first chapter and then re-appears alive in the last. Mitchell develops his characters mainly through their interactions with one another, so the novel is extremely talky; however, most of the dialogue works, though there is a little too much emphasis. The remarkable thing about Mitchell's characterisation is the almost imperceptible way he makes his characters change. Jason's father, overbearing and insufferable at the start of the novel, is subtly humanised in a narrative which touchingly locates anxiety and loss at the heart of brittle eighties confidence, while Jason's growth in courage is handled with equal lightness of touch. The short, pungent sketches of his teachers are one of the most amusing parts of the book, prompting smirks of recognition: "When you decide Mr. Kempsey's all right, he acts like a prat. When you decide Mr. Kempsey's a prat, he acts all right."
It is hard to choose a favourite episode from a book containing so many strongly-written scenes, but one of the most haunting is Jason's taut encounter with the local Romany in the woods surrounding the village. Shortly after this, Mitchell turns the annual Goose Fair into a place of transformative, but ultimately terrible, enchantment.
Plangent, humorous, and full of the stuff of adolescent life, this is a brilliant coming-of-age novel. It succeeds in conjuring up that era that is probably most difficult to evoke convincingly: a fairly recent past that is now beginning to recede. No-one could fail to be moved by it.--Isabel Taylor