Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett is a really difficult book to review. There’s nothing ‘feel good’ about it. It will leave you feeling flat, heart-sore and perhaps angry as well. But all the things that Sonya Hartnett does brilliantly are there. So let me begin with those.
Hartnett is the master of writing about Australian suburbia. The way she describes places are so accurately generic (stay with me, I know that sounds ridiculous) that all readers get the sense that she is describing their suburb. In fact, she rarely, if ever, mentions actual places, and Golden Boys is no exception (although I’m convinced it’s set in the Melbourne suburb of Doncaster). How does she do it? I’m not sure – you’re not consciously picking out details as you read however the aggregate of all those details – trips to the milk bar, wheeling in circles on your bike, the ice-crusted block of vanilla ice cream left standing in the centre of the neapolitan tub – sparks something and it all feels very real and very familiar.
“…the side door of the kiosk at the cricket ground, the bottle depot behind the Scouts’ hall, the grassy veins of unowned land that divide houses here and there…”
With that in mind, let me get to the guts of Golden Boys. It’s the story of two families – the Jensens and the Kileys. The Jensens are new to the suburb where the story is set and the father, Rex, showers his sons with the latest toys and gear, making them the envy of other kids. The story begins –
“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.”
In contrast, the large Kiley family barely have enough to make ends meet and the father, Joe, is discontent and unpredictable.
The stars of the story are the children, Colt and Bastion Jensen; Freya, Dec and Syd Kiley; and two other neighbourhood kids, Garrick and Avery. The way the kids act and speak is spot-on, almost to the point where you can finish their sentences.
“…for now, skateboards are his concern, and he hasn’t got any money so he must pin his hopes on Santa Claus, in whom he has some faith not belief.”
I finished the story asking myself “Who’s worse? Rex or Joe?” and then I said to myself “What the fuck? How is that I’m even comparing a pedophile and an alcoholic wife-beater? They’re all the worst!” But see how Hartnett paints you into a corner? Has you weighing up Rex and Joe, wondering who is ‘more at fault? That is very, very clever writing.
Like of all of Hartnett’s stories, there are many layers – I haven’t even mentioned the significant theme of children realising faults in their parents OR her wonderful analogies with seawater OR the brilliant scene where the Jenson’s above-ground swimming pool is filled OR how Hartnett slowly, slowly builds the evidence and the tension OR how the violence jumps off the page OR how much I loved the character of Syd OR how the back-stories of Garrick and Avery were very, very cleverly constructed.
4/5 Any book that necessitates an hour-long phone call at 11pm to a book-loving friend is a good book (we HAD to debrief).
“The children look forward to Thursday, which is supermarket day; preserved in their collective memories are those occasions when there’s been a jam log for them to chop up.”