By Sonya HartnettFiction Penguin
Sonya Hartnett has always written perceptively not just for children, but about their inner lives, for adult readers. Golden Boys follows her acclaimed suburban novels Of a Boy and Butterfly in going behind the curtains and closed doors of suburbia to uncover uncomfortable truths, documenting the sharp realities and murky undercurrents from a child’s perspective.
Golden Boys is narrated by various neighbourhood children, particularly two 13-year-olds on the cusp of adulthood: Freya Kiley, the eldest of six in a Catholic family where there’s never quite enough, and Colt Jenson, the golden-haired new arrival from a moneyed suburb, made uncomfortable by his father’s profligate generosity and over-friendliness to the neighbourhood children. The expensive toys he and his brother Bastian are showered with are ‘bait’ … for what exactly, we’re prompted to wonder about, just as Colt does. The two teenagers, poised on the threshold of the adult world, are keen observers, piecing together the way their world works and inviting the reader to assemble their own picture from the fractured evidence.
Hartnett builds Colt’s and Freya’s disillusionment with their once-worshipped fathers in tandem, as they steel themselves to see what the adults in their lives refuse to. This beautifully structured book builds from the disquiet of its opening pages to a climactic, tension-exploding confrontation.
‘This is an absorbing, fiercely elegant and tangibly believable novel that raises questions about our responsibility to bear witness - and details the complex obstacles to doing so,’ writes Australian Book Review.
Hartnett again demonstrates what an acute, unflinching talent she has for dissecting the fraught tribulations and harrowing doubts of children, imperfectly (and sometimes not imperfectly, but with terrible clear insight) interpreting the actions and hidden motives of adults. A new family move to an Australian suburban street of some 30 years ago - two troubled boys, their brittle, remote mother and a dentist father whose sleek, handsome charisma hints at a dark undercurrent which will soon be sensed by others, both children and adults, in the neighbourhood. Hartnett builds her suspense with both effortless skill and an aching sense of the price children perceive they need to pay for the flaws of their parents, and the desperate bargains they strike as a result.
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. Colt’s instinct is to warn his brother – Bastian, don’t – as if away from a cliff ‘s edge or some quaggy sinkhole, but doing so risks leaving him stranded, alone like someone fallen overboard in the night, watching a boat full of revellers sail on. Bastian will want to play. Their mother will say, in her voice of reined-in dismay, ‘It’s just a bit of fun.’
As the eldest he gets to guess first, so he guesses, ‘Blue.’
Their father shakes his head happily. ‘Nope! Bas?’
Bastian is prone to birdiness, his whole world one of those plastic kitchens in which girls make tea from petals and water. He guesses, ‘Yellow?’ as though it’s perfectly possible their father would bring home for his two boys a bicycle coloured yellow.
‘Nope again!’ Their father is cheered, rather than nonplussed, by the attempt. ‘Colt?’
Already Colt feels they’ve run out of colours. ‘Green?’
‘Not green. Your guess, Bas.’
Colt lets his shoulders fall. He looks at his mother, who is lingering by the leather recliner where their father would be sitting if he wasn’t standing by the mantelpiece conducting this game. She wears an apron, like a mother on a television show, and doesn’t look at him, although she surely feels it, his stare that is leaden even to him. And it happens again, like the clear tinging of a bell, the eerie moment when a truth breaks from the green depths into sunlight: she’ll ignore Colt for the rest of his life, if the choice is between her husband and her son. His mother will cling tight to the rail of the boat. Bastian’s saying, ‘Spotty?’ and Colt, dazed, stares down at his own feet. He wonders if this is what growing up is – this unbuckling of faith, the isolation. He is only twelve, but he’s not afraid. He is old enough. He looks at his brother, laughs rustily.
Bastian lifts his face. ‘Why not?’
‘Have you ever seen a spotty bike?’
‘I mean, all different colours—’
Colt shakes his head; his brother can be unbelievable. ‘It’s not spotty.’
‘Who knows?’ cries their father, reeling them back. ‘Who knows what’s possible? But it isn’t spotty. Your guess, Colt.’
Colt rummages for colours – he can’t remember any they’ve already nominated, feels only an indignation which, if it had a colour, would be a swampy scarlet. ‘I don’t know. I give up.’
‘If you give up, you mightn’t get the bike …’
‘Don’t give up, Colly!’ Bastian bounces on his toes.
Colt draws a breath. He wants to shout at his father that he doesn’t care, that no bicycle is worth this humiliation, that he’s not some prideless puppet. His mother has turned to him, her gaze reaching across the water, willing him to guess again: he swallows, as if it were icy air and salt water, her refusal to share or even acknowledge his affront. It doesn’t matter, he wants to yell. I can be alone. He’s not yet that courageous, but he will be. ‘Black?’
‘Not black. Bastian?’
‘Oh, I know, Dad! Purple?’
‘Purple it is not. Colt?’
‘Red,’ Colt snaps.
‘Not red. It’s difficult! Your turn, Bas.’
‘Is it brown?’ asks the boy.
‘Sorry, Bas, not brown. Colt?’
This can’t go on all night, but it threatens to. The time has come to draw a knife through it. Colt digs his toes into the carpet and thinks about all the bicycles he’s seen. At his old school – already it seems a place from a lifetime ago, although if he returned now his friends would hardly have missed him, familiar books would be open, the same papers would be pinned to noticeboards in the corridors, it would be as if he’d never left – the boys had hooked their bikes to the chain-mesh fence, posing them like skeletal carousel horses with their front wheels bucked off the ground. Expensive bikes, all of them, and when they were not the most costly they were still the most fashionable, racers with curved handlebars and tyres as thin as plate. Colt and Bastian have, in fact, such a bicycle each already, neat speedsters which at this moment are safe in the shed and in perfect working order, as their father maintains them. Two boys, two bikes, no need for this mysterious third; but their father heaps gifts upon them, there is nothing the brothers don’t receive. Everything they own must be the biggest, the better, the one which glitters most. Suddenly convinced of it, Colt says, ‘Silver.’
And although he’s sure his father must shout yes! silver! what he actually says, with no sign of wearying, is, ‘Not silver. Bassy?’
Frustration rears crazily, before Colt can crush it. ‘Dad! Just tell us! Bastian can’t guess anymore!’
‘Of course he can—’
‘No!’ Colt storms. ‘Just say it!’
‘Is it green? It’s green—’
‘You already guessed green!’
‘That was a different green! Dad, is it green? No, orange? Is it orange?’
Colt claps his hands to his face. He hears his mother laugh sympathetically, but her sympathy is useless, insulting, a leaf thrown into ocean. It is stuffy behind his hands, airless in the lounge room where the sun has shone through the big window all afternoon. The walls of the house are freshly painted in a shade of sand-dune beige, and smell like something plastic lifted out of a long-closed cardboard box. From the newly-laid carpet rises an odour of chemicals and glue. There had been a different smell when he’d seen the house for the first time, the day on which he’d been told it was to be his new home – a papery smell, like a wasps’ nest, and the walls had been the palest blue. On the mantel had been arranged a picket-fence of keys, each attached by a short string to a cardboard label. Front door spare, screen door original, side door, garage door, laundry overhead cupboard: he’d never known a house in need of so many keys, as if each corner concealed a secret. His father had swept the keys and their cards into his jacket pocket. Colt has no need for keys: his mother doesn’t work, so when her sons come home from school she is there; whatever she’s done that day, she has finished doing. She has a car key, and a duplicate of the front-door key. All the other keys Colt has never seen again. At the mantel, their father is laughing.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist