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Review: Black Rabbit Summer by Kevin Brooks

This book is a coming-of-age crime-thriller for teenagers. I’m not a teenager, and I’m not really a fan of thrillers. This book isn’t for me. And yet, I thought it was awesome.

The basic plot centres around of group of friends in their mid-teens. As with any decent thriller, there’s sex, booze, drugs and missing people. I’ve often said that moral ambiguity is the key to any good story, and you’ll find that in abundance here.

This book might be marketed to teenagers, but the quality of the writing is very high, better than most thrillers I’ve read that are aimed at adults. Of course, it doesn’t use long words or complex references, and the descriptions become a bit repetitive at times, but the simplicity of the language is barely noticeable thanks to the force with which the plot is driven. I had hoped to make a pun of the fact that Brooks uses the word “dully” so many times in this novel, but it’s hard when the novel is anything but dull.

Brooks cleverly interweaves a genuinely thrilling mystery with neat social commentary and acutely observed humour centred around the teenager-parent relationship. The plot is of it’s time – it’s only four years old, and many of the sociocultural references are already dated – but the themes are timeless: rich versus poor; stereotypes versus reality; childhood versus adulthood.

There are some real benefits to having a teenage protagonist in a thriller. The combination of strong-headedness and strained relationship with parents sets up a clear set of boundaries in which the action can take place. This negates the need for complex, unbelievable expositions of reasons for not going to the police or seeking help. The settings are limited, too, to those that are commonly experienced and relatable: no school child is going to go wandering off to an isolated aircraft hanger, a nuclear bunker, or any such nonsense. Brooks builds tension in common settings: the wrong bit of the local Council estate, the middle of a bit of waste ground. This takes substantial skill, but the familiarity also heightens the jeopardy.

There are, of course, also downsides. Surly teenagers can occasionally make for frustrating protagonists. The central character’s habitual lying (and that of his friends) thickens the plot, but does give rise to occasions where one wants to reach into the book, give him a good slap, and tell him to grow up.

There’s a brilliant thread of hallucinations and psychiatric disturbance that runs through this novel – and there are key plot points to explain it. I mention this only because it demonstrates that this book deals with complex concepts, and uses really quite advanced literary techniques to make its points. It might be for teenagers, but there’s no sense here of writing down to them. And it doesn’t pull punches.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Black Rabbit Summer is the extraordinary and memorable ending. Of all the novels I’ve read lately, this has the strongest ending. And, again, it’s not an ending you might expect from a book aimed at teens.

I didn’t particularly relish reading this, but it completely surpassed my expectations. It is a teen novel, but that just means it’s easy to read. It’s a narratively tight well-written gripping novel. I’d recommend it to anyone.

Black Rabbit Summer is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

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