Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett

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.”


24 responses

  1. What a great review! I read today that this book had been short listed twice for the Miles Franklin. How twice?
    Anyway – you’ve encouraged me to now buy this book and read it straight away. In all its layers and moral quandaries.
    thanks Kate

    • Thanks πŸ™‚

      I suspect the Miles Franklin reference was to Sonya Hartnett as an author – her books Of a Boy and Butterfly were both shortlisted for the Miles Franklin – and should have won in my opinion!). ‘Enjoy’ the book and make sure a friend reads it at the same time so you can de-brief!

    • Yes, I sat on it for a couple of days before I reviewed it (and also had a lengthy discussion with a friend). As always, Hartnett gives you plenty to think about.

  2. Kate I just finished this sitting outside in the glorious sunshine. Loved loved loved the writing but WTF with the ending? Is Colt taking the punishment his father should have? Or destroying himself so isn’t the physical mirror if his father. I need a debrief!

  3. Yes, Ceinwen – I need a debrief too!

    I thought that Colt was admittedly taking his father’s punishment, but the notion of him destroying himself – very interesting, and I think there might be a lot of that in there as well. From the very first, Colt’s mistrust of his oh so jovial and friendly father was so revealing.
    So which father was the more repellent? The suspected paedophile or the alcoholic? Degrees?
    I thought Freya was the most interesting character. Ambivalent to her mother, and almost just not rating her at all. Blaming herself for her whole family’s situation. And wanting the hero father that Rex seemed to embody, but seeing him turn to jelly. And then pitying her father. Feelings of disloyalty? Not sure.
    Oh families are messy!

    Some more debriefing with another confused person would be good! I might suggest this for a book group book – then debrief is guaranteed!

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  5. Finished this book last night, and been searching the net for explanations and found this review and comments and feel slightly better! Wish I had read suggestion about having a friend read it so one can debrief. I loved the book, but wanted to throw it across the room with its ending. There are just so many levels on which this book works and it certainly leaves you thinking long after you turn that last page. This book is definitely going to be talked about and studied for years.

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  14. My review is going to post in a few minutes so I’m now visiting other reviews in the Challenge. I laughed at your comment that you’re convinced it’s set in Doncaster. At my reading group last night one said she was sure it was Perth, and another said she felt it was Adelaide, while another said no, northern Melbourne!! The rest of us became quite befuddled and gave up!

    • Proves just how good she is at writing the ‘suburban experience’. My book group had a long and intense discussion over this book (unusual for us!).

      • Interesting Kate. I don’t think we had a more intense discussion than many of our books, but we have been going for 28 years now so there’s probably not much that surprises us any more! Jaded in our old age! Nonetheless, we did have a good discussion.

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