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Golden Boys : Shortlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award - Sonya Hartnett

Golden Boys

Shortlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award

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Sonya Hartnett's third novel for adults is perfectly formed and utterly compelling, an unflinching and disquieting work from one of Australia's finest writers.

Colt Jenson and his younger brother Bastian live in a world of shiny, new things – skateboards, slot cars, train sets and even the latest BMX. Their affluent father, Rex, has made sure that they'll be the envy of the new, working-class suburb they've moved to. But underneath the surface of the perfect family, is there something unsettling about the Jensons? To the local kids, Rex becomes a kind of hero, but Colt senses there's something in his father that could destroy their fragile new lives.

'Hartnett does a wonderful job of depicting the sometimes brutal world of childhood that runs parallel to, and occasionally intersects with, the world of adults.' Books and Publishing

Read Caroline Baum's Review

Colt and Bastian have all the coolest toys in the suburban neighbourhood they’ve just moved to. Bikes that make local boys envious, and a new swimming pool that’s a social magnet. But something makes it hard for the brothers to make friends and be accepted. Is it something to do with their dentist father Rex and his over-friendly manner? Freya, on the cusp of womanhood, does not think so. She thinks Rex is wonderful, even in his barbecue apron. She likes the way he’s a smiling father, not a drunk like her own dad.

This is a deft, unsettling story that rumbles with menace like a distant electric storm. It’s a dark edgy tale of class, submerged and repressed desire, suburban rumours, marital disappointments and tensions, as fragile adolescents try on the postures of adulthood.

About the Author

Sonya Hartnett's work has won numerous Australian and international literary prizes and has been published around the world. Uniquely, she is acclaimed for her stories for adults, young adults and children. Her accolades include the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Of A Boy), The Age Book of the Year (Of A Boy), the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize (Thursday's Child), the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year for both Older and Younger Readers (Forest, The Silver Donkey, The Ghost's Child, The Midnight Zoo and The Children of the King), the Victorian Premier's Literary Award (Surrender), shortlistings for the Miles Franklin Award (for both Of a Boy and Butterfly) and the CILP Carnegie Medal (The Midnight Zoo). Hartnett is also the first Australian recipient of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (2008).

In 2014, Hartnett published a new novel for adults, Golden Boys, and her third picture book, The Wild One.


Amazing but disturbing


I feel that Sonya Hartnett must have some experience of domestic violence. She captured the drunken father and his antics to a tee. I couldn't believe some of her observations - it was as though I had written the words myself. I really identified with the kids and mother in this book. It takes a while for it to start to unravel but the story is very good too. I enjoyed it despite the domestic violence.



Fathers and Sons


Although this book is marketed as adult fiction and is a must read for all teachers, it still could be a powerful text to both have in your school library and to use in class with students in years nine and upwards. Enjoy the reading then you're sure to think about using it in an education context. For adults who have read Hartnett's fiction before, the slowly emerging menace in the story is more easily felt. The "golden boys" are Colt, 12 and his younger brother Bastian, sons of their dentist father, Rex who has moved his family one more time. The opening event where Rex is teasing his sons about his latest gift of a bike sets up the power plays between all the male characters throughout the novel. Rex enjoys being "the father of envied boys". His move to an outer suburb ensures that the envy will be successful in crowding the house with the local boys from poor families, drawn in by the masses of toys that surround Colt and Bastian. When Rex adds a swimming pool to the house, those of us who will never forget Hartnett's 2002 novel Of a Boy are filled with foreboding. I have to ration my reading to 30 pages a day so that I don't devour the book in one sitting. Rex's sons attend an expensive private school, far away and beyond the comprehension of the working class family of Freya, also 12 and her numerous siblings, Declan, Syd, Marigold and Peter, while there is always another baby coming. Rex introduces the boys to Freya's mother as they leave the church after Sunday mass and, as Freya contrasts them to her own active and noisy brothers, Colt and Bastian stand "placid as giraffes". Two other boys complete the cast: Avery has street cat instincts, hates his guardian grandfather but has "the freedom of neglect" while Garrick, who enjoys bullying and is older and larger, comes from a family everyone is terrified of. Bastian, who "looks like a collectable doll" and Colt "like a boy pulled from a cereal box" are easier victims than Avery who has the street skills to avoid and escape more serious harm. Over one month in the lives of the two contrasting families, Hartnett, with her sharp-eyed observation easily gains my empathy as I read inside her characters' heads in her gripping present tense narration. Both Colt and Freya are at that age where they begin to see their parents as people with faults and weaknesses. Freya is losing both God and her parents as she finds a confidante in Rex. Syd, being younger, wonders why Freya is telling Rex family secrets about their drunken, abusive father. Declan and Colt are also beginning to understand. Declan finds Rex "just a bit strange. Don't go there alone, Syd." However, Colt sees that the toys are "for him", "not us" and develops a growing but suppressed rage of suspicion and betrayal. The tension laden climax does involve the pool in an oblique way as Hartnett, with her typically memorable imagery and the kind of sentence progression that reads effortlessly and disguises the writer's labour, produces an event which in retrospect has inevitable, dramatic power. Simultaneously (and this is her great skill) there remains the subtlety of the relationships which reverberate in my mind as I keep questioning what really happened and what effects it had and will have on the lives of these characters as they look towards adulthood.

Sydney, AU


For many reasons, a joy to read.


I gave this as a gift. Also recommended it to friends. A rare treat of a novel.



Golden Boys

4.3 3


Praise for Butterfly: 'Exquisitely written - you end up re-reading sentence after sentence - and unforgettable.' - Nick Hornby 'A heart-stopping representation of adolescent girlhood, as strange and riddling and true as fiction gets.' - The Age 'Lucid yet beautiful, compassionate yet unflinching, enigmatic yet touching, sometimes tragic sometimes funny ...a writer at the height of her powers.' - Weekend Australian

With their father, there's always a catch: the truth is enough to make Colt take a step back. There's always some small cruelty, an unpleasant little hoop to be crawled through before what's good may begin: here is a gift, but first you must guess its colour. Colt's instinct is to warn his brother – Bastian, don't – as if away from a cliff 's edge or some quaggy sinkhole, but doing so risks leaving him stranded, alone like someone fallen overboard in the night, watching a boat full of revellers sail on. Bastian will want to play. Their mother will say, in her voice of reined-in dismay, 'It's just a bit of fun.'

As the eldest he gets to guess first, so he guesses, 'Blue.'

Their father shakes his head happily. 'Nope! Bas?'

Bastian is prone to birdiness, his whole world one of those plastic kitchens in which girls make tea from petals and water. He guesses, 'Yellow?' as though it's perfectly possible their father would bring home for his two boys a bicycle coloured yellow.

'Nope again!' Their father is cheered, rather than nonplussed, by the attempt. 'Colt?'

Already Colt feels they've run out of colours. 'Green?'

'Not green. Your guess, Bas.'

Colt lets his shoulders fall. He looks at his mother, who is lingering by the leather recliner where their father would be sitting if he wasn't standing by the mantelpiece conducting this game. She wears an apron, like a mother on a television show, and doesn't look at him, although she surely feels it, his stare that is leaden even to him. And it happens again, like the clear tinging of a bell, the eerie moment when a truth breaks from the green depths into sunlight: she'll ignore Colt for the rest of his life, if the choice is between her husband and her son. His mother will cling tight to the rail of the boat. Bastian's saying, 'Spotty?' and Colt, dazed, stares down at his own feet. He wonders if this is what growing up is – this unbuckling of faith, the isolation. He is only twelve, but he's not afraid. He is old enough. He looks at his brother, laughs rustily. 'Spotty? Bas.'

Bastian lifts his face. 'Why not?'

'Have you ever seen a spotty bike?'

'I mean, all different colours —'

Colt shakes his head; his brother can be unbelievable. 'It's not spotty.'

'Who knows?' cries their father, reeling them back. 'Who knows what's possible? But it isn't spotty. Your guess, Colt.'

Colt rummages for colours – he can't remember any they've already nominated, feels only an indignation which, if it had a colour, would be a swampy scarlet. 'I don't know. I give up.'

'If you give up, you mightn't get the bike . . .'

'Don't give up, Colly!' Bastian bounces on his toes.

Colt draws a breath. He wants to shout at his father that he doesn't care, that no bicycle is worth this humiliation, that he's not some prideless puppet. His mother has turned to him, her gaze reaching across the water, willing him to guess again: he swallows, as if it were icy air and salt water, her refusal to share or even acknowledge his affront. It doesn't matter, he wants to yell. I can be alone. He's not yet that courageous, but he will be. 'Black?'

'Not black. Bastian?'

'Oh, I know, Dad! Purple?'

'Purple it is not. Colt?'

'Red,' Colt snaps.

'Not red. It's difficult! Your turn, Bas.'

'Is it brown?' asks the boy.

'Sorry, Bas, not brown. Colt?'

This can't go on all night, but it threatens to. The time has come to draw a knife through it. Colt digs his toes into the carpet and thinks about all the bicycles he's seen. At his old school – already it seems a place from a lifetime ago, although if he returned now his friends would hardly have missed him, familiar books would be open, the same papers would be pinned to noticeboards in the corridors, it would be as if he'd never left – the boys had hooked their bikes to the chain-mesh fence, posing them like skeletal carousel horses with their front wheels bucked off the ground. Expensive bikes, all of them, and when they were not the most costly they were still the most fashionable, racers with curved handlebars and tyres as thin as plate. Colt and Bastian have, in fact, such a bicycle each already, neat speedsters which at this moment are safe in the shed and in perfect working order, as their father maintains them. Two boys, two bikes, no need for this mysterious third; but their father heaps gifts upon them, there is nothing the brothers don't receive. Everything they own must be the biggest, the better, the one which glitters most. Suddenly convinced of it, Colt says, 'Silver.'

And although he's sure his father must shout yes! silver! what he actually says, with no sign of wearying, is, 'Not silver. Bassy?'

Frustration rears crazily, before Colt can crush it. 'Dad! Just tell us! Bastian can't guess anymore!'

'Of course he can —'

'I can!'

'No!' Colt storms. 'Just say it!'

'Is it green? It's green —'

'You already guessed green!'

'That was a different green! Dad, is it green? No, orange? Is it orange?'

Colt claps his hands to his face. He hears his mother laugh sympathetically, but her sympathy is useless, insulting, a leaf thrown into ocean. It is stuffy behind his hands, airless in the lounge room where the sun has shone through the big window all afternoon. The walls of the house are freshly painted in a shade of sand-dune beige, and smell like something plastic lifted out of a long-closed cardboard box. From the newly-laid carpet rises an odour of chemicals and glue. There had been a different smell when he'd seen the house for the first time, the day on which he'd been told it was to be his new home – a papery smell, like a wasps' nest, and the walls had been the palest blue. On the mantel had been arranged a picket-fence of keys, each attached by a short string to a cardboard label. Front door spare, screen door original, side door, garage door, laundry overhead cupboard: he'd never known a house in need of so many keys, as if each corner concealed a secret. His father had swept the keys and their cards into his jacket pocket. Colt has no need for keys: his mother doesn't work, so when her sons come home from school she is there; whatever she's done that day, she has finished doing. She has a car key, and a duplicate of the front-door key. All the other keys Colt has never seen again. At the mantel, their father is laughing. 'Isn't that what postmen ride, orange bicycles? Do you want to be a postman, Bas?'

Bastian screws his face up merrily. 'Dad! No!'

'If I gave you an orange bike, you might turn into a postman! Maybe that's how postmen become postmen?'

'Don't be silly!'

That's red bikes, Colt thinks into his hands: it's red bikes postmen ride, you . . . moron. Because on this night when truths are rising to the light, he's seeing this too: his father can be absurd. He's been a god and then a man of miracles and of late he has sometimes seemed a stranger to Colt, or someone he wishes were a stranger, but through all this downhill metamorphosing his father has remained a man of dignity: absurd comes to Colt like the scratch that makes the record player's needle skim. He lowers his hands to consider his father in this new, diffuse light. He's amazed that it's taken him so long to see it, and wonders how much else he is missing. The evening is warm, but Colt feels cool. As if to halt what he's thinking dead in its tracks, their mother finally speaks. 'Dinner's almost ready, Rex.'

And perhaps even their father is bored, as it must be boring being ringmaster to such witless clowns: 'All right,' he says, pushing away from the mantelpiece, 'you can give up. It's an impossible task for two intelligent boys. Dinner's almost ready. Quick then, let's look at this bike.'

It is parked outside, on the porch, below the lounge-room window. The four of them crowd around it like sheep at the manger, Bastian's hands fluttering to his mouth. The bike is a BMX, with wide chrome handlebars like a stag's horns, and vinyl-covered rolls of padding press-studded to the handlebars and frame. Its crow-dark tyres are densely, deeply knotted. The narrow seat is hardly present, not intended for sitting on; the handgrips are knobbly, the pedals serrated for grip. It has no gears, but its brake cables curve boldly, silver-threaded antennae. Not everyone has such a machine, they're a marvel seemingly just recently delivered into the world, and standing beside it Colt feels the warmth of its desirability. It smells of its newness, and in the entire world there is no better smell. But what he sees is the hook that was buried in his father's game, the treacherous seaweed beneath the waves; and in the moment when he should thank his father, what he says is, 'It's black. I guessed black.'

'It's charcoal,' their father corrects. 'What do you reckon, Bas?'

Bastian has the wide eyes of a fawn, the colour of caramel syrup. There's a kind of trepidation in them now, an awe of how good life can get. 'Oh Dad!' he breathes.

'Rex,' says their mother, 'you spoil them.'

'Ah well!' Their father shrugs helplessly. 'Why not? There's been a lot happening lately, new house, new school, but you've been good about it, haven't you, boys? You haven't complained. And what goes better with a new neighbourhood than a new bike to ride around on? All the kids will want a piece of this when they see it, won't they? The fellow in the shop said it's the kind all the boys want.'

And Colt, who hadn't known complaining had been an option, runs his fingers over the BMX's shiny frame and perceives that this is why he – for it will be he, not Bastian, who commands this savage thing – now owns it, and owns so many good things, and only has to ask in order to receive more. Their father piles his sons with objects worth envying, so he will be the father of envied sons. Two boys, one bike: it's not for them, it's for him.

It is murky, this perception – he has a sense of something charmless shifting its position, something which sees him but which he is failing to see. He lets his hand drop. 'Do you like it?' his father's asking.

'I love it,' says Bastian heartily.

'It's great.' Colt looks at his father, who is framed against the white sky and the last fanning rays of the light. 'Thanks, Dad.'

'Can we go for a ride, Dad?'

'We'll take it for a test-run after dinner,' says Rex. 'And there's the weekend ahead of you, remember. Plenty of time. Dinner first, fun later.'

He spins his younger son around and smacks him on the tail, and Bastian, released from the spell of the marvellous thing, shoots into the house, flailing with excitement. There's the merest moment, as their father follows the boy inside, for Colt to catch his mother's eye. 'I guessed black,' he says. 'Charcoal is black.'

He sees her concede with the faintest of nods. 'You've got it now,' she says. 'Don't make a fuss.'

ISBN: 9781926428611
ISBN-10: 1926428617
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 256
Published: 27th August 2014
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 23.5 x 15.4  x 2.1
Weight (kg): 0.39
Edition Number: 1