I came across this book in Vogue, downloaded it on my Kindle and subsequently forgot about it. However, I started reading it this week-end and I just couldn’t stop. It’s rare that a novel is both a page-turner and beautifully written. Yet, Golden Boy, written by 25-year old Abigail Tarttelin, captures your interest from the first chapter and shortly after, hammers up the suspense to lead to a dramatic event that will shake up the life of its teenage protagonist, Max Walker.
The book deals mainly with the inner-life of teenagers and you would assume it belongs to the Young Adult fiction genre. It also opens with a school-essay by Max’s younger brother Daniel. However, it switches from the innocent and simple child-like emotions of a ten-year old in awe of his sporty, clever, good-looking elder brother Max, the “Golden Boy”, to a much darker and graphic narrative. This is made possible through the novel’s structure which is split into chapters dedicated to different character voices. After reading about Max from both his younger brother’s and mother’s point of view, you soon come to his own perspective and as events rapidly unfold, discover his well-kept secret…
***PLOT SPOILER ALERT***
The secret is actually given away within the first twenty pages and is a core theme of the novel. Max is inter-sex, that is, he has grown up with a boyish outward appearance, but he has the genitals of both a boy and a girl. His karyotype, the number and appearance of chromosomes in the nucleus of a eukaryotic cell, is 46,X/46,XY. I liked the fact that while reading a gripping story, you were also learning about a medical topic and its social implications, with a doctor character in-the-mix to provide the reader with some medical facts. In fact, Tarttelin was awarded a grant by the K Blundell Trust who support British authors under the age of 40 writing to increase social awareness. I think she does a very successful job of appealing to her readers emotionally and producing a genuinely moving story about Max, a popular and talented teenage boy who, by fate, was born with a condition that would change his whole life through no choice of his own. We are all landed with genetic hand-me-downs which we might not be that keen on, but prepare to be humbled after reading this book which delivers a piercing insight into what it means to be born with an undefined gender. While gender and sexuality is a topic very much in the public sphere, I don’t think there is as much focus on the sexual disorders which occur in one in every 1,500 births, according to the support group Accord Alliance.
Tarttelin also successfully portrays characters in different stages of life, teenagers and adults alike. Being only 25, I expect she has a better memory than most authors of this period in life and this is evident in the thoughts of Max and his embarrassment over his condition, and his girlfriend, Sylvie, who is a quirky and interesting character, but a social outcast at school. Max is about to turn 16 and he is becoming increasingly inward-looking and insecure about his condition. He doesn’t have the same teenage issues to deal with such as mood swings and bad skin because he has stopped taking doses of male hormones. In a sense, he is like any boy who is slow to develop physically, but with much more serious connotations. So he feels, for example, intimidated by his cousin Hunter who is physically overpowering to him. In one season (central to the PLOT SPOILER ALERT!) and throughout the book, Tarttelin vividly describes the way Hunter, who is stealthy and animal-like, makes him feel vulnerable and weak. Sylvie, on the other hand, is a more resilient character but out-of-sync with her age group as she prefers to be alone and write poems. Her only company at school, until she meets Max, are the “half-way girls”:
“Halfway pretty, halfway popular, halfway mean and halfway nice. Sometimes I hang out with them when I’m bored.”
Max’s parents are also described in a lot of depth, particularly his mother Karen. The Walker family are outwardly perfect; both parents are high-flying lawyers and gym enthusiasts. There are several questions surrounding the way they brought up Max and Tarttelin goes into a lot of detail about the guilt they feel. They were encouraged by doctors to assign Max a female gender at his birth and then later a male gender. However, the parents refused to operate on him or make an ultimate decision, which is something that haunts them later in the book. I like the way that Tarttelin shows Karen’s human reactions and leaves it to her readers to decide whether she is acting reasonably or not.
Overall, this book is a great read and educational about gender disorders, both factually and emotionally. I feel that more work could have been done to distinguish the different character voices. While their attitudes are distinct, the way that Max communicates is too similar to the middle-aged doctor, for example. However, the writing is raw and powerful and the story keeps you hooked throughout.