Golden Child, the debut novel by Claire Adams and second book produced by SJP for Hogarth, is an emotionally-charged and compelling novel that I’m still processing, nearly 24 hours after finishing the last sentence. I won’t delve too much into the storyline, as plenty of other reviewers have done so; rather, I offer my personal impressions.
In this compact (just under 300 pages), yet robust and meaty novel, Adams deftly explores Paul (the less academically inclined twin) and his father Clyde (with perhaps a little less development of the gifted twin, Peter, and their mother, Joy, but it does not detract from the story in any way, in my opinion). The push and pull we see in both Paul and Clyde, father and son, individually and between each other, is the silent undertow that carries the novel through each of the secondary characters and provides the strength of emotions that rise as we go on this journey with them.
As I read the last chapter from Paul’s perspective, I was deeply hurt for him, knowing what his fate would be and feeling his helplessness, but at the same time his acceptance. I tried to assuage my own pain for Paul by rationalizing that he never knew his father faced such a difficult decision, he never knew there was a possibility of a different outcome. All to no avail. My heart breaks for Paul.
On a separate note: I wish we had been given more of Paul’s thoughts and feelings about the label affixed to him by his family, that he was “retarded” or that there was “something wrong with him.” We get a little peek at the crack in the veneer of this self-belief, no doubt ingrained by years of hearing this “truth” about him from his family, and in that short peek, it seems as though Paul, with more time in his life, could have come to believe what the priest did about him, that he was undeniably not “retarded.” I wished, for Paul, that his family had known all of things he excelled at, for example, being able to read a situation/person and know precisely how to respond in order to self-preserve, and his detailed understanding of the bush and all the flora and fauna that reside therein.
Adams brings to light several important issues and will, I imagine, in book clubs and hopefully beyond, prompt some honest discourse about the impact abject poverty has on parenting and the extreme difficulties of raising children in countries/societies where corruption, violence and inherent danger are the baseline from which all families must operate and adapt. I have read other reviews that suggest that they (as parents/readers) would “never” have made the choice that Clyde (and to a lesser extent Joy) did; others who have commented that the “choice” they faced was never really a choice at all–it was an issue that could have been resolved the way a first-world parent would have handled it, by simply paying what was asked and figuring out the rest later. But in my humble opinion, these folks miss the point entirely. Adams offers us an important glimpse at the impossible circumstances many parents around the world face, parents that lack the inherent security that a wealthy, capitalistic, opportunity-rich and democratic society affords– knowledge that their children are, for the most part, safe and protected and will be afforded opportunities if they “just work hard.” These are privileged assumptions that we, as first-world citizens, have and Adams challenges us to understand what other parents in second/third world countries *must* do in order to ensure the survival of not only their children, but themselves. Adams’ call to arms is that we get uncomfortable with this ugly truth and realize that, in these countries/societies, it is not as simple as “just” paying or “just” getting the right contact to negotiate on your behalf. It is much more complex, difficult and nuanced. There are no winners, there are no good choices. Nonetheless, choices must be made and they won’t be pretty, or simple, or ever provide the resolution one would hope for.
This novel is certainly one I’ll continue to reflect on well after I’ve moved onto other books. There’s something so heartbreaking about Paul, I just wanted so much more for him than this life gave him. Similarly, I felt deeply sympathetic to the difficult path Clyde had to take to save his son. I found myself wondering what might have consoled Joy in the weeks, months, years afterwards; how she managed the resentment she must have felt for her husband for the choice he made, the choice she did not agree with, the choice that had to be made without knowledge of what Peter would later be able to achieve. I wondered how Peter managed to put everything behind him as he walked the path that had been laid for him many years ago, well before things went south with Paul. I wondered how many nights Peter laid awake in his new country and whether he ever wished his father made a different choice. I also wondered how Clyde and Joy managed to maintain their family after the irreparable betrayal of Joy’s brother.
The fact that I want to know more about the aftermath of each of these characters makes clear that this novel hit its mark exactly. Bravo Ms. Adams!