Sonya Hartnett, Golden boys (Review)

Sonya Hartnett, Golden boysAlthough Sonya Hartnett has written a large number of books, for children, young adults and adults, I’ve never read her, which is something I’ve been wanting to rectify. My opportunity came in May when my reading group scheduled her latest novel, Golden boys, for discussion. It was shortlisted for several awards last year, including the Miles Franklin Award – and has by now, I expect, been reviewed to within an inch of its life, but that’s not going to deter me!

You can tell, with Golden boys, that Hartnett is an experienced writer for young people. The book’s protagonists, the perspectives through whom the story is told, are all pre-teen. The three main voices are 12-year-old Colt, eldest son of the well-to-do Jensons, and almost 13-year-old Freya and 10-year-old Syd, children of the working class Kileys. The set up is that the Jensons have moved into a working class suburb for a reason that starts to become clear as the book progresses.

The novel opens with Colt:

With their father, there’s always a catch: the truth is enough to make Colt take a step back. There’s always some small cruelty, an unpleasant little hoop to be crawled through before what’s good may begin: here is a gift, but first you must guess its colour.

It’s a powerful beginning, and we’re right there. The scene is played out through Colt’s eyes. He’s been through these games before and he doesn’t want to play. He’s starting to realise there’s something darker behind his father’s generosity: “His father spends money not merely on making his sons envied, but on making them – and the word seems to tip the floor – enticing. His father buys bait.”

The second (unnumbered) chapter starts with Freya:

Freya Kiley has started to see things she hasn’t before. Until recently she has lived as every child must: as someone dropped on a strangers’ planet, forced to accept that these are the ways of this world.

But, on the next page we read

Now she’s older and smarter, and she’s starting to see that the world is a castle, and that a child lives in just one room of it. It’s only as you grow up that you realise the castle is vast and has countless false floors and hidden doors and underground tunnels … And as you get older, you’re forced out of the room, whether you want to go or not. Freya wants, with urgency, to go.

This lovely castle motif recurs through the novel. Anyhow, here we have two young people on the cusp of adolescence living in families which are headed (because this is the late 1970s when men still tended to “head” the family) by two problematical fathers – the superficially charming, generous but creepy Rex Jenson, and the detached, sometimes violent Joe Kiley. You have probably guessed what some of the themes are … but they are tied up with the plot, and …

I’m not going to talk about the plot because I have other issues to explore. I’ll just say that it builds slowly, inexorably, as the neighbourhood children gravitate to the well-endowed Jenson home, until we reach the climax . It’s expected – has been cleverly foreshadowed – and yet is surprising in exactly how it plays out. It’s painful, but clever too in resolving little while exposing a lot.

Adult? Young Adult?

Rather, I want to talk about voice and audience. When writers write in the voice of young people, or through the eyes of young people, there’s an immediate assumption, fear even, that the work is for young adults, but this isn’t necessarily so, though it can probably make such books cross more easily between adult and young adult readers. This is where Hartnett’s adult-marketed Golden boys sits. Its subject matter extends beyond a narrow focus on teenage experience, like first romantic relationship, first sexual experience, feelings of alienation or otherness, conflict with parents, and so on, to exploring the experience of awakening awareness to the reality of adult life. Here – this awakening – is the focus of Colt and Freya’s consciousness. How are they going to make sense of the flawed adult world they are now seeing? How are they to move through it? Will they survive their loss of innocence (and we are not talking sexuality here, but that deep shock when your view of the world, your sense of safety, is shaken to the core.) I should reiterate here that there are other youthful perspectives, including that of 10-year-old Syd who provides a neat counterbalance to Colt and Freya. At 10 he still has the self-focus of a child, not yet aware of “adult” life. What he wants for Christmas, whether he can still swim in the Jensens’ pool, and whether being a gangster would be a good career are what occupy his mind!

Hmmm, I’m not sure still that I’ve explained why this is a book that should interest adults – those adults who think, perhaps, “been there, done that”. It’s relatively easy to argue that the book, meaty though it is, would appeal to young adults, but why would a book in which all the perspectives are those of young people appeal to adults? Well, first there’s the subject matter, which addresses pedophilia and domestic violence. Just because we see these events through a young perspective doesn’t mean the exploration is superficial or irrelevant to an adult reader. Indeed, this perspective adds weight, because we see what the children see and the impact on them, how they try to process what they actually see, and how they comprehend the behaviour and responses of the various adults. When traumatic things happen in “real” life, it’s the adults we see and hear – the adults who are interviewed on the radio or television, the adults who write the memoirs or exposés. Hartnett presents the other side, the missing voices of the young – and I found her young people to be psychologically convincing. They are aware, perceptive and curious – but their understanding has limits, such as Freya’s taking the full blame for her parent’s situation because she was the reason they married. Hartnett, though, never sells them short, and neither I think should we.

And then there’s the writing. The imagery fits beautifully. There’s the castle motif for Freya, and a subtle but ominous repetition of the colour “black” from that bike in the opening scene to local bully Garrick’s fringe being described in the last scene as “blown back from his forehead like black grass on a sandy dune”. Descriptions tend to be physical. When Colt is confronted by the boys “the sun becomes an inferno, claws tigerishly at his neck”. On another occasion, one of Freya’s little sisters “skitters off like something twanged from a catapult”. The novel, in other words, is a joy to read – despite the unpleasant subject matter – for the imagery, careful plotting, characterisation, and that ending which manages to surprise despite our basic expectations being met.

Earlier, I quoted Freya as seeing the world or life as a castle. Towards the end, as things become more and more clear, she considers:

If she has spent her life rummaging through a castle of countless rooms, she thinks she must have found the vault at the castle’s core, because inside it there is nothing but her wits.

And that is the lesson, in the end, that both Freya and Colt learn. They will have to make their own decisions, rely on their wits, if they are going to survive this flawed, not always safe, world.

awwchallenge2016Sonya Hartnett
Golden boys
Hamish Hamilton, 2014
ISBN: 9781926428611