‘Golden Boys’ by Sonya Hartnett
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As is often the case in a Sonya Hartnett novel, the kids in Golden Boys know too much.
Early on, Hartnett tells us that “Freya Kiley has started to see things she hasn’t seen before”. Not yet 13, Freya considers that her parents’ marriage, before she was born, “wasn’t so long ago”. Isn’t the conceivable past, at that age, still bracketed by one’s own life span? Colt Jenson, also 12, “wonders if this is what growing up is – this unbuckling of faith, the isolation”.
Freya is the eldest of a band of kids into whose neighbourhood come Colt and his younger brother Bastian, the golden boys of the title. The year is circa 1980 and the Jenson family seems an odd fit for the ungentrified blue-collar suburb they’ve moved into. The boys attend a private school elsewhere and their dentist father, the urbane Rex, could well afford to live in a classier postcode. As it is, he spruces up their modest house, installs a pool in their yard, and fills the place with toys and gizmos – a BMX, a slot-car track – that make it a mecca for the neighbourhood kids. But what drove the Jensons from their leafy suburb across town? Why did their boys have to change schools? As the book begins, Colt already sees through his father’s charm, harbouring a suspicion that stirs into certainty long before the last page.
One street over, Freya has her own father problem. Joe Kiley, when he hits the booze, throws food, threats, his fists. There are six Kiley kids and, Freya worries, another one on the way. But, “Never think you have to have a man in your life,” her mother tells her; “you don’t.” Why ever did they marry, her mum and dad, wonders Freya. And then she finds out: because of her. She’s responsible.
Hartnett is masterful at building suspense – drawing readers into a spiral of savagery and dread – then bursting it to reveal what her young characters are capable of, what comes after the worst that can happen. And nobody is better at mapping the fissures of puberty: the realisation that something’s up, that your parents aren’t who you thought they were; the thinning of the skin. But in Golden Boys (marketed as a “novel for adults”) even children well short of puberty are weighted with a kind of catastrophic fatalism that will be familiar to readers of the acclaimed Of a Boy.
It’s one thing to acknowledge that kids take in more than we suppose; by crediting – burdening – them with insights beyond their years, Hartnett risks making a freak show of childhood.
Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.