Four of the five shortlisted novels for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award were by women writers. In spite of losing out to Sophie Laguna and The Eye of the Sheep, to my mind Sonya Hartnett’s Golden Boys is the best of the four.
A small, unnamed town where the local kids take to the streets as the long summer holidays loom before them. The arrival of the Jenson family changes the dynamics – Colt and his younger brother Bastian are showered with gifts by their father: bikes, skateboards, Scaletrix – even a swimming pool.
But there’s something odd about Rex. He’s just there a little too often. The local boys arrive for a swim – Rex is there with his welcoming repartee. Scrapes and bumps need fixing – Rex is there with his first-aid kit. But he appears to be the answer for 13 year-old Freya – the eldest of the six Kiley siblings. A schoolgirl crush develops – unlike her own father, Rex is not the local drunk who terrorises his own family.
It’s Freya who carries the weight of responsibility of her dysfunctional family and, along with Colt, it is through their eyes that the narrative of Golden Boys develops. Both despise their fathers for their own reasons: both yearn for a different environment. Both, distantly, recognise a kindred spirit.
It’s a suburban landscape of times past (no smartphones, PCs, tablets) where kids spent their time outdoors – on bikes, skateboards or at the local creek. Golden Boys is a story of its time – the neighbourhood acceptance of domestic violence; the response by, and its effect on, children; the insidious nature of Rex insulated by money.
It’s a disquieting novel, a finely tuned picture of life in regional Australia in the late 1970s/early 1980s. But, family life seen from the perspective of children, it is also a time of confused innocence and a rude, confronting coming-of-age where there are codes of conduct and justice.