Golden Boys is the first novel I have read by Australian author Sonya Hartnett, who has written loads of books for Young Adults, children and several books for adults. She has been shortlisted twice for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia’s best known awards for fiction writers, and not reading any of her work before now has been a massive oversight on my part.
Golden Boys is set in Melbourne in the 1980s and although I grew up in the country rather than the city, the setting of this story feels as familiar to me as my own backyard. The atmosphere of the story in the first few pages reminded me of that lovely feeling as a child at the beginning of the school holidays, with weeks and weeks of summer stretching out ahead.
The story starts with Colt and Bastian Jenson, moving into a working class suburb, where they meet a tribe of children who have grown up in the neighbourhood. The locals include hordes of Kiley children, a bully; Garrick Greene, and Avery Price, who is unloved and unwanted by his own family but is everyone else’s pet.
Colt and Bastians’s father, Rex buys his children everything they want, and plenty of stuff that they don’t want. In a neighbourhood where money is tight, Colt and Bastian have toys and skateboards and board games and slot cars and a BMX bike and a swimming pool, all of which Rex encourages the other neighbourhood children to play with too. The Kileys, Garrick and Avery are very quick to ingratiate themselves with the Jenson family, where they enjoy barbecues and swims in the Jenson’s pool.
Many working class families in the neighbourhood are poor because, like the Kileys, the father drinks away his pay packet before the money makes it to the household bills. The Kileys are a sad example of an unhappy family. Joe Kiley regularly beats his wife when he is drunk, and the Kiley children are well aware that their parents don’t particularly love them or each other. Freya, the eldest girl of the Kiley family, enjoys the attention of Colt and Bastian’s father, and wishes her father was more like the charismatic Rex Jenson, who dotes on his sons. Colt Jenson, however, wishes that his father would disappear, for reasons that emerge as the story unfolds.
Rex is a dentist and Colt and Bastian attend private school, which immediately makes them different to the rest of the neighbourhood. At first, the boys are a sensation in the neighbourhood, but as the story goes on and Rex gains a reputation among the neighbourhood children for touching his son’s friends inappropriately, Colt and Bastion become pariahs.
There is a lot going on in this story, and although I really enjoyed the storytelling, the themes are quite dark. The children in this book learn at a very young age that life is not fair and that they shouldn’t expect it to be.
Golden Boys is completely matter-of fact about communities accepting and ignoring what goes on in their neighbours homes, of not wanting to get involved, not offering assistance to those who need it, in the name of minding their own business.
None of the adult characters in Golden Boys are particularly good people, although the men are depicted as worse than the women. The men are cowardly, drunkards, wife-beaters, or child-molesters. The women are either uncaring or victims. The children’s morals teeter between doing what is right and accepting things as they are. I wondered what would become of them as adults, would they try to right the wrongs of the world or would they do as their parents did? I’ll never know, because the book finished before they grew up, but I suspect they did the best they could sometimes and did badly at other times, just like real people.
Despite the uneasy feeling Golden Boys left me with, I am looking forward to reading many more books by Sonya Hartnett.