Book Review: Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin

GoldenBoyAll children are special, and each child is different, especially when it comes to your own. But Max, the protagonist in Abigail’s Tartellin’s, thought provoking second novel Golden Boy is more special and more different than most.

To those who think they know him, sixteen year old Max is good in the classroom and good on the football pitch. He has a wide circle of friends and is liked by the girls. Add in two loving and successful parents (both lawyers) and a younger brother, Daniel, and he’s got the perfect life. But Max and his parents have kept the Golden Boy’s true identity a secret from everyone. Max is intersex, he is neither a boy nor a girl. However, as a result of the violent betrayal of a lifelong friend (aptly named Hunter) and the pressure his Father faces when running for parliament, the family is forced into finally dealing with who Max really is.

When Max was ‘revealed’ early on in the book, I was tempted to head off to Wikipedia to do some research on the subject of ‘intersex’, or as I ignorantly used to term it when younger, ‘hermaphrodite’. But I didn’t need to as all aspects of ‘intersex’ and how it affects children as they develop were described in detail throughout. There were times when it did feel like research and fell outside the narrative, but in general the details gave weight to the story, for example when Max and his girlfriend Sylvie ‘Google it’.

“I guess you’d maybe be under this category?” I say, pointing to ‘Not XX and not XY.’
“I guess so. Wow. One in one thousand, six hundred and sixty-six births. That’s a lot.”
….”Though, I had an oveotestis when I was born, and it says here that’s one in eighty-three thousand.”
“…What’s an ovotestis?”
“Um…where you have tissue of both an ovary and a testes in the same gonad.”

Max’s own internal dilemmas are exhibited throughout. In one case when arguing with himself about whether or not he is going to ‘do it’ with Sylvie, knowing she would discover who he/she really was.

You’re in Sylvie’s bedroom, says my brain.
Are you gonna do it with her?
No, how can I?
Oh, go on. You want to bury your face in her hair so bad. What’s the worst that could happen.”

It reminded me of the devil and angel on John Belushi’s shoulders in the classic ‘fraternity’ satire Animal House. And there is a clever play on words, for example when Max is told to ‘Man up’ during a football match.

Tarttelin takes a polyvocal approach to telling the story. In a series of short chapters, each character, from his want-it-all mother Karen and geeky brother Daniel, to empathetic GP Archie, and ‘kooky’ girlfriend Sylvie convey the horrors and dilemmas facing Max. On the whole the author succeeds in making each voice distinct, and I particularly liked Daniel, who reminded me of my own younger son who questions everything and often fails to understand why things are they way there are.

“I don’t get what the difference is between a girlfriend and a friend who is a girl. Max has said things about them being attractive, but is that the only difference?”

As a reader you are left in no doubt how each character is feeling as Tarttelin descriptions are forensic. But as the story progressed I felt the urgency of the plot to unfold, which was the novel’s strength, was at times stalled by the extent of such detail – I fought with the temptation to skim over these parts.

Tarttelin covers many themes. Obviously, gender and sexuality, but also how identity more widely informs how we see each other, in particular when growing up. This is also the case in the role each parent plays; both have high powered jobs, but the mother also takes on the more traditional role of housewife. It is here where the classic theme of secrets and lies amongst family members is played out, with each having their own agenda they perceive to be for the good of all.

If a book with literary ambition should both inform and entertain, as well as make you see the world in a different way, if only slightly, then Tarttelin has certainly achieved that. She has taken on a topic which, besides Jeffrey Eugenides book Middlesex, has had little attention paid to it in fiction. But it confirmed my belief that although we have more information than ever about how other people live their lives, it doesn’t mean that growing up is any easier or that people are any more empathetic. On reading Golden Boy you would hope such attitudes can change; that we can see difference not as something to ridicule or discriminate against but rather as something quite natural. After all, people are all different, they are all special, aren’t they?

Golden Boy was published in May 2013 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. Buy it from Foyles.

Peter is a writer and editor of fact and fiction. A recent graduate of University of Westminster's M.A. in Creative Writing, he is also a stay-at-home father of two ever-expanding sons. He writes flash fiction, poetry (most recently published in South Bank Poetry magazine) and plays. His play ‘Waiting for Summer’ was one of four winners of Bulbul 2012 playwriting competition on the theme of the Arab Spring. He is also currently writing a book on portrayals of the working classes in fiction.

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