Penguin Books AUS
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Freya Kiley is the eldest of five in a household that is bursting at the seams and yet, the babies keep coming. She finds herself beginning to question why this is so when the family doesn’t have the space or money to really accommodate them. Her father Joe works at a printing press and her mother stays at home with the children. She can see no real affection between her parents either, just a tired resignation and on the days Joe drinks his pay away, not even that.
Then Colt Jenson and his younger brother Bastian move into the neighbourhood. It’s clear right away that they are quite different. Their charismatic father Rex is a dentist and obviously they’re wealthier than the other families. Rex showers Colt and Bastian with gifts – BMX bikes, skateboards, slot car racing tracks, an above ground pool – making their house the place for all the other children to congregate. Freya’s two brothers Declan and Syd, local bully Garrick who comes from a notorious family and Avery, who lives with his grandparents and is often left to his own devices out on the streets all enjoy the perks at first – swimming in the pool, playing with the expensive new toys, being provided with never ending food and drink. But it seems that hanging out at the Jenson property just might come with a price.
Sonya Hartnett’s new novel is a rather understated but yet unflinching look at two families, different for very many reasons who are brought together when the Jenson family move into the Kiley family’s neighbourhood. The story is told through the eyes of their eldest children, Colt Jenson and Freya Kiley who are both about twelve. Both are old enough to know that their families have cracks appearing but probably still young enough not to really truly understand why. Freya in particular is beginning to question things, such as why her parents keep having children. She doesn’t know where they come from or how they really come into existence, just that her parents keep doing whatever it is that makes them arrive. There are seven in the family, squeezed into a small 3 bedroom house. Much of their house revolves around the moods of their father Joe and whether or not he has been drinking on payday.
Colt is confused about his family’s move to this suburb, this neighbourhood which they clearly don’t fit into. He harbours resentment for his father, a deep and dark simmering feeling that he keeps tightly locked down as Rex plays his games and showers them with their presents. As a reader you don’t quite understand in the beginning just what Colt’s resentment is really all about. The innocence of his younger brother Bastian is a stark contrast to Colt’s already cynical way of looking at his parents and their situation. He doesn’t want the toys, the shiny playthings. He finds his father embarrassing.
To Freya, Rex is something like a hero. He’s so much different to her own father, who tends to not really even register her presence most of the time. Rex listens, he seems to really care what she is talking about and he offers advice when Freya brings up personal situations. She won’t hear a bad word against him and wishes that her own father were more like Rex, who doesn’t drink to excess and always seems to provide well for his family. Rex is the person Freya turns to when she needs help and to her, it seems like he might be the only one that can stop what is happening.
Golden Boys isn’t a long novel but at the same time, it manages to have somewhat of a slow build up. It creates an atmosphere, showcasing the neighbourhood and the people within it for quite a long time before you get the inkling of what is going on behind closed doors, or something that could potentially be about to happen. This is set in a time of neighbourhood freedom, where kids spent from morning until dusk outside, roaming the streets, visiting each other’s houses. It’s an area that seems bordering on the edge of poverty (or tipping over into it) and so the affluence of the Jenson’s stands out as something to aspire to, especially for Syd, who covets the pool and the expensive toys and wants to buy a house when he grows up where there’s one room for each person. But for Colt, there’s something uncomfortable about it – the continual moving of houses and the shiny toys given to keep them quiet and happy. The attracting of all the local kids to their house as a focal point. I have to admit that after such a slow build, I did want a little bit more out of the ending. I dislike abrupt, ambiguous endings at the best of times but I feel as though there could’ve been a bit more here, given how complex the story became. I wanted more to unfold although perhaps the most disturbing thing is that I can probably guess for myself, how things go for several of the characters.
I think the most interesting thing about Golden Boys is that it speaks from the point of view of the children and Sonya Hartnett, who has written numerous novels for young adults, captures their interactions both with each other and with adults perfectly. She manages to hit just the right notes between sullen forced politeness, inquisitiveness, naivety and cynicism, depending on the child. It’s a snapshot of outer surburbia and the people within it. This is not a book that I loved, but it is a highly skilled novel, well crafted and written and it’s the sort of story that sneaks up on you and leaves you thinking about it long after you’ve completed it.
Book #174 of 2014
Golden Boys is book #64 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014