Review | Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin

As part of a project I’m working on, I’ve had the fortune to stumble across a variety of books that I wouldn’t have ordinarily picked up. Thanks to this project, and possible a Booktube video or two, I found Golden Boy.

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Max is an above average fifteen-going-on-sixteen year old boy. He loves playing football, hanging out with his friends, playing video games with his younger brother Daniel, and kissing girls. His dad is a crown prosecutor about to run for MP; is mum a successful barrister in her own right. He’s getting amazing grades and is certain to get into the best local college and then onto Oxford University.

And then, one night, everything changes.

After the devastating attack, Max is left broken, confused and terrified. Because underneath it all, Max isn’t a typical boy: he’s intersex. With both male and female anatomy, he’s kept it hidden all of his life, and not even his parents have told him everything about his condition. But that one night could threaten to reveal his secret and destroy the lives of everyone he cares about.

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I have a big decision to make. Part of what packed such emotional punch with this book was the revelation of what happens ‘that night’ and how it unfolds, so I’m reluctant to spoil it for anyone in anyway. However, what happens is, to be honest, horrific and pretty graphic – not what I was expecting at all! So a part of me feels that I should be sticking a very large warning label on this review.

I guess, if you’re really worried, send me a message and I’ll fill you in on two key moments. One is very early on in the book, only about twenty pages in, but it seriously changed my view of the whole book once it was revealed and I think it works best if you don’t know what happened going into it. The second is much later, but stills needs a little warning.

And what follows – woah, what follows! – is a remarkable book. Boiled down to its essence, Golden Boy is one part coming-of-age tale and one part family drama. Tarttelin entwines these two elements together seamlessly, with characters that are both endearing and infuriating for multitudinous reasons. As this progress from bad to really, really flipping awful, I was compelled to carry on with each new page and each new raw emotion.

Max really is a lovely boy, and his character is a wonderful construct of a teenager not quite like everyone else, but in a good way. The way Tarttelin builds the world and characters around Max highlight both his normality and his otherness. No one out side of the circle of family and extremely close family friends know about Max’s condition and so nothing is different about the way Max is treated by his peers. He’s a good mate and student, who has the rumour mill running around him thinking he’s a heartbreaker sleeping with all the girls. School life is rendered accurately, which only adds to the love you develop for Max.

Sylvie, too, is a lovely character – the ‘kook’ girl that Max starts to have feelings for. Again, she doesn’t quite fit in, and seems to see the chink in Max’s armour as things start to fall apart. The play on people’s similarities and differences as a kind of literary compare, contrast and unification is subtle and seamless.

Other characters that are real high points are Max’s brother, Daniel, and his doctor, Archie. Archie seemed to bring the reasoning to the situation and balanced things well – although I am a little skeptical about the way things play out much later in the book, and found it a bit of a stretch of character just for the sake of plot. That being said, her insights offer the reader a glimpse into the medical aspects of being intersex, as well as being steady, stable character you keep coming back to.

Daniel is both a complex dimension and a light relief. The way he sees the world is at times funny and others poignant, whilst his relationship with his mother and with Max is difficult for him to understand in his young mind. Being honest, as an only child, I found it difficult to understand myself, but the more I think on it the more it makes sense and just adds to the layers of complexity in this novel.

It tackles some big issues. Really big issues. And it looks at them all with both clear distance and heart. Tarttelin doesn’t sugarcoat anything that happens, but there’s a empathy there that underlies the decisions of each character, whether you agree with them or not.

And some of it really is just devastating. There were moments when I had to put the book down and walk away before it became too much. The rollercoaster Tarttelin takes you on is as brutal as it is wonderful.

There are some flaws. As I mentioned earlier with Archie, there are character decisions that cut a little too close to being forced for the sake of plot rather than because it felt natural. Karen, Max’s mother, felt underdeveloped throughout, and we only got to explore Steve, Max’s father, and his perspective in the last third of the book. There are minor characters as well, who lack the depth and clarity that the more main characters have.

However, these are only minor things in what is a remarkable book. I highly recommend picking this up, as it’s one I think should be on everyone’s shelf.

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Hopefully I’ll be back to blogging here more regularly soon. I’ve been having a bit of a rough patch at the moment, and this was a way of getting me back into the swing of things.

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