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Normally I would avoid revealing the secret at the heart of a book but in UK author Abigail Tarttelin’s powerful new novel Golden Boy (Hachette) we find out what’s going on with teenager Max Walker within the first 20 pages. So here goes. Max is special. Good-looking, sporty, popular at school, the perfect son and brother, sweet sixteen…oh and he’s inter-sex; born with both 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 himself, his precocious little brother Daniel, his 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 ferverish reading I’ve done in ages. Tarttelin – who’s only 25 – manipulated my emotions like a pro, involving me utterly in the lives of her characters, shocking me with the crisis situation Max faces where it seems his secret might be revealed and his young life ruined by the shame of it.
Of course 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 due to the limited directions the story could go in.
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’s prone to holding forth on gender ideology.
There’s a tendancy for other characters to be overly on-message, even Max himself at times. “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.
That said, 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 the UK population 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.
While graphic in places, this would be an enlightening young adult read and I can see older teenagers being especially affected by it. The books appeal goes beyond that, however, with enough to engage not so young adults.
The scariest thing is a secret according Max Walker. Golden Boy is a coming of age story with a twist or two. Suffice to say I haven’t given away all of its secrets.