14 November 2014

Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin

Oh man. I'm still reeling from this book.

GOLDEN BOY's flap copy says it all: it's the story of Max, an intersex teenager (who identifies as male) who is betrayed by his friend in a turn of events that risks exposing his secret, and forces him to confront questions of his identity he's never faced before: who does he want to be, how does he want to live?

All that made me think it was a YA novel, and had me in the mind of some sort of high-school-rumor mill-gone-horribly-wrong type of plot. But I was fascinated with the premise and gave it a try anyway.

To start, it's not strictly YA. Many chapters are written from Max's point of view, but not all; his younger brother Daniel, age nine, narrates, as does his doctor, his mother, his friend-maybe-girlfriend Sylvie, and eventually his father.

Second...it's definitely NOT a rumor mill type of story. The betrayal referred to on the jacket is far, far worse, and it happens in the second (third?) chapter. And it was the most harrowing thing I think I have ever read. I didn't want to keep going but I couldn't put it down.

And that set the tone for the novel. Over and over, GOLDEN BOY left me shattered, unable to continue but unable to stop until I reached the end.

I don't think I've ever read a multiple-POV novel that pulled it off as well as GOLDEN BOY. The first chapter was from Daniel's POV, and I could not believe how exquisitely Tarttelin captured the inner voice of a nine year old boy. He could have been me at that age. I've always felt kids are a lot harder to capture the interiority of than teenagers and adults, but Daniel's inner life was just...incredible. And it speaks to the incredible bonds of brotherhood, and the indelible ability of young children to love and forgive, that of everyone, he seemed to me the one who most loved Max for who he is.

Max and Sylvie's POVs were spot-on, too. I don't know what well of empathy Abigail Tarttelin found, but I could not believe how achingly poignant Max was. And Sylvie was, too, as she tried to figure out the mystery that was Max, as their friendship slowly developed despite the barriers they threw up between them.

And then, there were Max's parents. For the first half of the novel, his mom, Karen, was a focal point of narration. For a long time I thought we'd never hear from Steve, Max's dad, at all. Both adults were vivid, real people, full of heartache and worry over whether they were doing the right thing. But I didn't like Karen. I thought she was incredibly selfish throughout, and some of the things she did were unforgivable. Steve, on the other hand, I found I could sympathize with more, even if I found him incredible weak at times. He, at least, seemed to admit his failures and try to make up for them.

I wonder how much of my interpretation is due to my own gender bias.

More than anything, GOLDEN BOY was a story about taking control of your own story. Max struggles with who he is, what he is, what he wants to be, and who gets to have control over his life. He makes mistakes - everyone does - but he tries his best.

In its characters, in its execution, in its overwhelming humanity, GOLDEN BOY was a transcendent read. While I was in it, I knew I loved it, but it was so painful at times I wasn't sure if I'd ever be able to read it again. But now, having made it through to the end, I can't stop thinking about it, and I know that I will return to it.