Book Review: Golden Boy

15803173Thank you to Edelweiss and Atria Books for the advanced reader’s copy of Golden Boy, (and to the Windsor Public Library for loaning the hard copy). Golden Boy is an extraordinary debut by Abigail Tarttelin. As the back jacket flap reads:

Written by twenty-five-year-old rising star Abigail Tarttelin, Golden Boy is a novel you’ll read in one sitting but will never forget; at once a riveting tale of a family in crisis, a fascinating exploration of identity and a coming-of-age story like no other.

I couldn’t agree more. Golden Boy is a very engaging read and one I finished in just a few sittings. While reading I was almost given the sense of  “edge-of-your-seat” anticipation as to what will happen to Max next. An entirely different viewpoint however comes from Emily M. Keeler, a special reviewer for the National Post’s Afterwards. Keeler describes this as  “a disappointing novel” and had some scathing commentary on the characters in the book, particularly Karen, Max’s mother and Dr. Archie Verma, the doctor Max seeks out in confidence for treatment. Max is able to form a trusting, albeit short and scattered, relationship with Dr. Verma. Yet, according to Keeler, her role in the story is simply to make the topic and information about intersexuality palatable. Possibly, yet I found I grew quite fond of Archie as she did reassure Max using a calmer manner than other doctors Max has been subjected to by his parents over the years.

I am also not in agreement with Keeler’s other remarks about the characters in Golden Boy. I felt they were all wonderfully depicted, and yes, while Karen may be a woman you do not necessarily endear yourself to, I think how she is personified simply demonstrates Tarttelin’s wonderful command for creating such true, rich and wholly believable characters.

At first, we are introduced to Max Walker as seen through his younger brother Daniel’s eyes. To Daniel, and to the outside world, Max is a golden boy. He has the looks, the appeal, the following, the wit, the charm and the ease of which he seemingly glides through life. However, Max has a secret. It’s an immense secret. Not even his little brother knows about it. There is a very limited number of people that know about it. Obviously, his mother and father, and, as becomes an unfortunate situation later, his mother’s closest and best friend and her son, Hunter. Max and Hunter are the same age and have grown up with much closeness they refer to themselves as cousins. These are the only people that know of Max’s secret.

Max is intersex.

For Max’s parents this poses potential issues for the future as they both have high powered careers, and Max’s father is planning on running for MP. The former MP flamed out in a widely reported on scandal owing to his children’s partying and racial expressions. Therefore it is imperative that no scandal come out from the Walker’s household during this key time.

Growing up, and growing older, Max is aware of his differences, but in a somewhat vague manner. He is after all very popular with the ladies, seemingly identifies as male but at the same time quite aware that he isn’t going to be looking the same as his guy friends in the coming years – he’ll still remain a “pretty boy” with no facial hair – and he’ll never get past only kissing girls. He has more sense of his pending loneliness as he reaches adulthood. Max has also met a girl that he takes more than just a passing interest in. He worries more now about the relationships he’ll be able to form in the future.

One night, while Max’s parents are throwing a party at the house, Hunter enters Max’s room intoxicated, high, and sexually assaults him.  This brutal act causes great harm to Max, more harm than just the initial assault, which spirals into more damage to his family, his friends, his relationship with his younger brother and his girlfriend.

For much of the story, Max works to tell no one about the assault, the only person that knows is Dr. Archie. She has however avowed to keep Max’s confidence while looking further in to his “type” of intersexuality. At the time as her discovery, Max makes an alarming discovery of his own. It is this significant and crushing discovery which has the potential to destroy his family but is going to change everything that Max has had to realize about himself.

“The question he has to look inside himself to answer: Who is Max Walker, really?”

“I hate Hunter. I hate him for everything he’s doing to my mum, and to me and to my family.”

As I mentioned above, it’s this “edge of your seat” anticipation that propels you through Golden Boy easily and hungrily. Tarttelin has combined a coming of age story for an intersex boy with seamless explanation about the condition and the varied types of intersex persons. She has created an endearing and easily likeable character in Max and has beautifully described his coming of age with a twist. Outside of Max, easily my favourite character was his younger brother Daniel. He’s extremely precocious, has anger management issues, is highly intelligent and wants to build all life forms with robotic extensions –  but mostly, he thinks his brother is #1 in everything. His world consists of Max and the video game World of War. He worships Max, sees that his parents prefer Max over him, thinks Max shines at everything and can do no wrong. Tarttelin brilliantly captures his 10-year-old mind flawlessly in my opinion. Daniel will attach himself to your heart immediately. The longer the Walker’s keep Daniel in the dark, the more frustrated he becomes and the more you appreciate Tarttelin’s capture of true and rich characters.

Yes, Karen the mother, is shallow, annoying and frustratingly naïve in her wanting to keep Max as the sweet baby boy. Her yearning for Max stay as this soft, sensitive, never hormonal boy borders on the weird. Her deep-seated denial is almost laughable. She is determined to keep Max as this young boy and in a place where no one needs to find out about his secret – including Max himself it seems. But again, the drawing of this mother and her behaviour is excellent and completely believable. She’s the character you love to hate.

“I was walking in, waving him away…I didn’t want to talk about Max’s being intersex anymore.”

When the secret is more out in the open, and the true and hurtful event that Max has had to endure in silence is known is the time when Max must really come to terms with who he is, what he feels he wants to be, and what he can expect in the future. It’s all written so wonderfully.

“If I don’t have the operations now, I’ll start to look different. Or rather, everyone else will start to look different, and I’ll stay the same. This is the turning point. This is the time when whether you are a boy or a girl counts. And you to pick one. Why? Because those are the rules. Everything else is a nonentity. I wish I could just tell everyone. I wish being me was normal, or if not normal, then accepted. I wish I didn’t have to hide all these thoughts. I wish I didn’t have to be alone with this, to worry that I’ll always be alone. Maybe that’s the worse thing about being intersex. That I can’t tell anyone. I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

Golden Boy starts, continues and ends on very satisfying points. I read through it in a short number of days, glued to the pages the whole time. This is a wonderful debut from a very young author that is definitely one to watch for more from in the future. I know I will be! Kudos for describing an interesting yet difficult issue or topic in such an exquisite manner.