Book Review: Golden Boy

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Abigail Tarttelin has written a dramatic and emotionally authentic story. An unusual sexual secret gives this novel raw power, writes Nicky Pellegrino

Author Abigail Tarttelin. Photo / Supplied
Author Abigail Tarttelin. Photo / Supplied

Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin
(Hachette)

Normally I would avoid revealing the secret at the heart of a book but in British author Abigail Tarttelin's powerful new novel Golden Boy we find out what's going on with teenager Max Walker within the first 20 pages. So here it goes.

Max is special. Good-looking, sporty, popular at school, the perfect son and brother, sweet 16 ... oh, and he's intersex; born with male and female genitalia.

Only those closest to him know his secret.

It's a grabby premise for a story that's told Jodi Picoult-style from multiple perspectives. So we hear short bursts from Max, precocious little brother Daniel, mother Karen, father Steve, school friend Sylvie and Archie, his GP, an approach that gives immediacy and keeps you racing through the pages.

The first third of Golden Boy is the most feverish reading I've done in ages.

Tarttelin – who is only 25 – manipulated my emotions like a pro, involving me completely in the lives of her characters, shocking me with the crisis Max faces where it seems his secret might be revealed and his life ruined by the shame of it.

There's only so much shocking you can do as an author, and as the book settles down so does the pace. Gradually I grew less gripped, partly attributable to the limited directions the story could take.

A few things go wrong in the execution of this second novel. For a start, Archie the GP is a clumsy device. It's fair enough to have a medical professional in the mix to inform the reader about intersex conditions – these are more varied and complex that you might imagine – but unfortunately she is prone to holding forth on gender ideology. There's a tendency for other characters to be overly on-message, even Max. "It's no use asking why questions of sexuality and gender give people the creeps, and it's no use blaming it on society and saying it should change, because nothing is going to change," he tells us.

But this book is a startling and sensitive exploration of its theme, rigorously politically correct but also thought-provoking. It's designed to make readers ask questions. What is normal? Why acknowledge only two sexes when there are tens of thousands of people born intersex in Britain alone? Is early surgical intervention and hormone treatment right or wrong?

Mostly, Tarttelin manages to discuss such issues within the context of a dramatic and emotionally authentic story.

Although graphic in places, this would be an enlightening young-adult read and I can see older teenagers being especially affected by it.

The book's appeal goes beyond that, however, with enough to engage not-so-young adults.

The scariest thing is a secret, says Max Walker. Golden Boy is a coming-of-age story with a twist or two. Suffice to say I haven't given away all its secrets.

- Herald on Sunday

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