Longlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award
Early in this thorny coming-of-age story, 11-year-old Declan Kiley persuades the neighbourhood bully, Garrick, to hit him instead of going after the smaller and more vulnerable Avery. At first Garrick is doubtful, but Declan convinces him “[a] punch is a punch”, and eventually Garrick obliges.
At key moments in Golden Boys, people attempt to make things right by taking on punishments that might more justly be served on others. Their success or otherwise is just one of the engines driving this succinct and vivid novel.
Golden Boys focuses on two families in an outer suburb of Melbourne, the Kileys – long-time residents, their six children bursting the seams of their modest three-bedroom home – and the Jensons, the glamorous newcomers, who seem “burnished right to the bone”.
Twelve-year-old Colt, the older of the two Jenson children, possesses shelves full of actual golden boys: statuettes of figures frozen in mid-stride who sit atop his many athletics trophies. Yet Colt the athletics champion has given up running. In fact he seems paralysed, or as if he exists behind cellophane, like one of the many unopened toys in his family’s playroom.
It is Rex Jenson, Colt’s charismatic father, who invites the Kiley boys, Declan and 10-year-old Syd, and their friends Avery and Garrick, inside to play with his sons and their “mountain of toys”.
To the Kiley children, the Jensons seem to have it all: a BMX bike, skateboards, a swimming pool. For Freya, at 12 the eldest of the Kileys and feeling an unbearable weight of responsibility, Rex becomes a confidant.
If Rex Jenson has a sophisticated easy charm, Joe Kiley is a rough-around-the-edges working man trapped in an unhappy marriage with too many children and too little money. He frequently comes home drunk, and often it’s only a short step from drunkenness to anger. Plates are smashed, voices are raised, the younger children cry and the older ones try to administer comfort.
Yet it’s Joe who first sees something beneath the smooth veneer of the new neighbour. Colt, too, is beginning to question his image of his father. When the local children are introduced to the playroom overflowing with toys, Colt realises: “His father spends money not merely on making his sons envied, but on making them – and the word seems to tip the floor – enticing. His father buys bait.”
And it works. The Jensons’ place quickly becomes a magnet for the neighbourhood boys. And before long they begin to notice something else about Rex, something more insidious. When does teasing tip into cruelty? When does friendly roughhousing become groping? And if it does, does it matter? What can you do? Who will believe you? Is this just the way the world is?
Sonya Hartnett has made a career of writing about – and often for – children, and the relationships between the children in this adult novel pulse with life: Declan’s laconic care for the younger Syd; Freya’s impatience with just about everything, except Rex, who she comes to believe will somehow save them; the thuggish, too-loud Garrick, and Avery, a “lawless being” with the habits of a street cat.
Told in the present tense, Golden Boys is nevertheless saturated in a suburban landscape of decades past, where boys ride bicycles through silent streets, play pinball machines at the local milk bar, and hang out in the mouth of the huge stormwater drain beside a patch of waste ground, untroubled by mobile phones or the internet.
Spanning only a scant few weeks, Golden Boys flows as easily as a bike ride on a summer afternoon. But within its effortless unfolding are sombre themes: of the neighbourhood’s acceptance of domestic violence, and its effects on children; of the way class and money can enable and protect a predator; and how resilient, vulnerable, opportunistic and courageous children can be.
This review was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 30 August 2014.