Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin (review copy) - WARNING! Some might consider this review to have minor spoilers (though I don't really think so).
Max Walker: blue-eyed boy or girl next door?
To the outside world, Max Walker is a golden boy: a loving son and brother, the perfect student, captain of the football team and every girl's dream boyfriend.
But Max was born intersex - neither fully boy nor fully girl. Now something terrible has happened to him, the consequences of which have left him questioning his true identity.
Can the people around him - his girlfriend, his classmates, his ambitious parents - accept him for who he is? Or will Max's secret life tear his world apart? From Goodreads
**I reveal the terrible event in my summary below, and continue to discuss the consequences of it in my review, but as it happens very early on in the novel, and is really the start of the story, I don't think it's too spoilery. However, you may not wish to read my review if you don't want any aspect of the book spoilt for you.**
After writing a blog post for my employer's website about YA LGBTQ fiction, a colleague gave me one of the proofs for Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin that we had in store. I was intrigued by the novel as there are so few books about intersex characters, but I had no idea what a phenomenal read I was in for.
To everyone outside his family and close family friends, Max is an ordinary boy. Popular, loving, smart and affable, he's everyone's friend. What most people don't know is that Max is intersex. After he is raped by a family friend, his whole world is turned upside down. Not only is the ordeal horrific enough, but it has repercussions that ripple out into the rest of his life. He is left, lost in a whirlwind of emotion, question everything he knows about himself. Who is he, really? Is he the golden boy, or is that just who everyone else wants him to be?
Golden Boy is absolutely incredible! It is such a powerful, thought-provoking, and completely heartbreaking novel, one that is going to stay with me for a very long time after. Max knows so very little about his intersexuality. For reasons of their own, his parents decided not to tell him too much about it. Regarding his genitalia and reproductive organs, he knows what he has and what he doesn't. But he doesn't know about the discussions with doctors his parents had when he was a child. So once he's raped by his mother's best friend's son - someone he thinks of as a cousin - a vile, horrendous, absolutely sickening act, his whole perception of himself changes. Max starts to question who he is, what he is, what he should be.
Golden Boy was a big surprise to me. I am not the kind of person who copes well with heavy, depressing books. I don't mind a sad novel, but hard-hitting, melancholic, shoving-serious-issues-down-your-throat type novels I just don't get on with. I get very emotionally involved in books, so they completely affect my mood. Even once putting the book down, I can be on a real downer I struggle to get out with. And yet I will slog through a book like that, because I feel I'm doing a disservice to the characters by not reading their story, to the real people who are in similar situations. But it's hard. It's emotionally draining.
However, despite the seriousness of Golden Boy, I had no trouble reading it at all. This might be because I had no idea going in how rough things were going to get for Max - and rough they do get, unbelievably so - as you're taken by surprise at the turn of events as the story goes on. But I think it has more to do with Tarttelin's writing, and how she wrote Max. His character felt so real to me, his voice so genuine. I don't think I've ever been so emotionally attached to a character before. His fears, his doubts, his questions; they run in all kinds of directions, but they're all so real, so valid, so believable. Max's narration felt to me like reading emails or letters from a real boy, someone I cared about, and someone I wanted to help so badly. Because I cared about the boy, the person, the individual, who he is at his core, so much, there was no slogging my way through this book. I was absolutely gripped, and absolutely desperate for things to turn out ok for Max, for him to be ok.
One of the things that is amazing about this book is how brilliantly, seamlessly Tarttelin can switch from voice to voice. Golden Boy is narrated by six people; Max, his mother Karen, his father Steve, his younger brother Daniel, his GP Archie and his girlfriend Sylvie. Each person has a very distinct, individual voice - each having an age. The difference between Max's voice and Daniel's, or Max's and Karen's is amazing. Karen is very much an adult, Max a teenager, and Daniel a nine-year-old, and they all sound it. Tarttelin manages to get inside the head of each character so completely that if each chapter didn't start with who was narrating, you would be able to tell from the narration. The differences in voice are that obvious, and it's just completely amazing!
I liked most characters, and besides Max, especially Archie and Daniel. Archie is a very pro-active GP. She's not had Max before she first sees him after his rape, and doesn't know too much about intersex people, and so for her own knowledge to do her job better, and for the sake of Max if he ever has questions about himself specifically, she really does her research (meaning Tarttelin really did her research). I learnt more about intersex people from this book than I have from the other two I've read (Pantomime by Laura Lam and Annabel by Kathleen Winter), and it's so interesting. It goes right into the medical science of it, but it also talk about gender and the importance society places on putting people into one box or another. It was absolutely fascinating. I loved Daniel because he, in his way, brings the lighter side to the story. He is so incredibly smart for his age, but has anger issues and doesn't quite get things right socially. But the way he thinks and talks, and put things across, you can't help but smile, even when he is creating a huge scene. Sometimes, he seems to understand things so much better than adults do, not just because he's smart, but because he still has that innocence and acceptance that comes with being a child. Daniel is such a brilliant character.
However, I couldn't stand Karen. I wanted to slap her so hard on so many occasions! I wanted to scream and shout at her, because it was just unbelievable to me how she could treat her child the way she did. I think Karen is going to be one of those women some people are going to completely understand, some people are going to feel sorry for, and some people, like me, are going to loathe with a passion. I could understand where she was coming from, but understanding does not equal agreeing with her actions and reactions. But, as she says, there's no rule book for raising a child, and there's no saying how anyone would react in her situation. It makes you question what you would do if you were in her shoes. There are so many options covered in this book, choices and decisions that were or could have been made at each point in Max's life, and it made me realise there are only good intentions. You won't ever know what decision made for an intersex child while he or she is young is going to be right for that specific child until they're older... and yet you can't not choose one way or the other. Each choice has an affect, but you must choose when a child is unable to choose for themselves. So Karen's part in Max's story works for provoking thought, but a decision she makes later in the book... I cannot tell you how angry I was. Raging barely begins to cover it. Absolutely unforgivable. That woman... oh my god, I can't even begin to explain.
Golden Boy is an undeniably one of the most incredible books I have ever read. This review doesn't really scratch the surface. Such an important novel, one I wish everyone would read, one I feel should be read in schools. It's perfect, and I am so, so glad I've had the opportunity to read it.
Thank you to Phoenix Paperbacks, via Foyles, for the review copy.
Published: 30th January 2014
Publisher: Pheonix Paperbacks, Orion
Abigail Tarttelin's Website