Monday, 14 July 2014

Golden Boy, by Abigail Tarttelin

Golden Boy is, in every sense, a breath-taking book. Abigail Tarttelin’s mature and stunning storytelling is heart-rending and brilliant, and left me still thinking about the story, the characters and the subjects that she raises days after I had finished reading.

At its essence, Golden Boy is the coming-of-age tale of Max. When his supposed best friend betrays Max’s trust in the worst way imaginable, Max is forced to confront and rethink his identity. At sixteen years old, he’s mostly been okay with who he is, but suddenly all the things that were supposed to be worries for the future have arrived: will anybody ever be able to accept him? Will he ever be able to fall in love? How will the choices and decisions he makes today affect his future?

As the past is dug up and the future is pulled apart, Max has to fight for the right to choose who he wants to be, whilst simultaneously dealing with a traumatic event no one should ever have to go through, least of all on their own.

What labels and boxes do we put ourselves and others in? Male, female; sporty, nerdy; gay, straight; cool, uncool. What is my personal identity and what factors contribute to that? How do I choose to present myself to the world and what assumptions do others make about me? These are all questions that Tarttelin raises through Max’s story: gender, identity, sexuality, labeling. Every single one of this is bendable, there is rarely a clear-cut option of one or the other, yet we cannot help but set up neat little boxes for ourselves and try to force people to fit within them. As Tarttelin changes points of view from Max to his mum, his little brother, his doctor, these themes are reflected in each and every one of their parts of the story, the things they consider important, the way they react to events and people around them.

Max does not fit into western society’s average box. He is intersex. He presents himself to the world as a boy, but he has both male and female anatomy. How does he know which he supposed to be? His family doesn’t discuss his “condition”; he has memories of doctors and specialists, of being prodded and poked as a child, but nobody has ever really explained to him the details of his body. The terminology seems to change over the years, but rarely the understanding or the compassion.

“It doesn’t matter if I think like a boy or a girl. It doesn’t matter anymore if I’m either or both or neither. All that shit seems so petty and immaterial now. There’s so little difference between one human being and the next, it’s just hypotheses, human ideas about life and the world and words, that mean nothing; about definitions that mean nothing to the earth, to nature, to the universe.”

But now Hunter has not only committed the most heinous act, but is blackmailing Max, using Max’s identity against him to keep Max quiet. As Max tries, desperately, to seek help from his parents, a chain of events is set in motion that sends Max down a tumbling hill of fear and pain. His mum wants the best for him, but her version of the best is to find a way to squeeze him back into the box of perfect son, her progressively more desperate actions stripping Max of his choices and making him just as powerless as Hunter did. It is almost a form of torture to watch these events unfold and to not be able to help Max, or shake his mother back to reality.

Where will his inability to speak up take him as he looks for a way to regain control over his life? It seems like, gradually, everyone is betraying him, even himself, his own body. Sixteen years of being quiet and being good, of keeping off the radar, makes it practically impossible for Max to express or even fully determine what it is he really wants for himself; it is like he is drowning but no-one can see it. As he spirals, the tension of the story is palpable, electrically charged, and just so very emotionally powerful. Tarttelin is a masterful writer raising incredibly, incredibly important issues that are all too easily swept away beneath the stiff upper lip and ill-conceived pride of generations of society; and she does so with deft and balance and in a way that is hard to be ignored. This is a brilliant, must-read book.

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