Sonya Hartnett is that rarest and most precious of writers: a reverse Peter Pan. Though the subject matter of her books is centrally concerned with the experience of childhood and youth, this has nothing to do with any refusal to grow up on the author’s part.
Rather, her fictions insist that we, whether jaded adults or teenagers keen to escape an atmosphere of general humiliation, grow down: return to that era of our lives when skin was raw to philosophy and experience – when we were helplessly abraded by the storms of love and life.
Not that there is anything utopian about this moment. Indeed to read Hartnett, to admit the ferocity of her truth telling and recall the painful project of self-fashioning, is to be reminded why we accepted the dulling habits of maturity in the first place.
Like 2009’s Butterfly, Golden Boys is a novel intended for an adult audience. It takes the suburban gothic at which Hartnett is so adept and adds another layer of psychological disturbance. The work does not represent a shift in substance so much as a slide up the parental guidance band.
The golden boys of the title are Colt and Bastian, children of a dentist and his wife who have recently moved to a nondescript suburb of an Australian city. There are enough wide empty streets and remnant bushland around to make this new home feel like an island to the boys, marooned away from their friends and past life. And there are enough strugglers in the neighbourhood to ensure that a well-to-do professional and his picture-book family stand out.
Which, for Colt, a handsome and athletically gifted 12-year-old, is a special kind of torture. For someone whose greatest desire is to sink into the bland anonymity of social life, he has been doubly burdened. His younger brother is sweet, fey and terrifyingly ill equipped to meet the rougher edges of the world. Meanwhile, his father is a man whose wide generosity comes laced with sadism. Even his welcoming kindness to the stray kids of the district is shadowed by darker motives.
Before the reader triumphantly shuts her brain with a word – paedophile! – it is worth reiterating: adult needs and motives may shape the psychic geography of childhood in Hartnett’s work, yet her interest lies in investigating the ways young people negotiate the acknowledgement of those shaping forces. Only a page in, for example, while the boys suffer one of their father’s small mental cruelties, we see their timorous mother from Colt’s perspective:
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 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.
In the chapters that follow, as Rex the dentist uses the middle-class largesse of bikes and toys and above-ground pools to gather the ragtag kids of the area to his home, and Colt is obliged into greater understanding than he cares to possess, another local child is given equal narrative billing. Freya Kiley lives in a nearby street but inhabits another, far more straitened world: “The Kileys are not starving, and certainly not bleakly poor; but the tightness is always there, blandening the taste of things, sucking vibrancy out of the air.”
As the eldest of six children in a house where “siblings arrived like jetsam, like kittens to a barn”, Freya has an aching sense of responsibility. It was her birth that first shut the doors of opportunity for her once-aspirant parents. Now her mother clings to religion while her father holds down a blue-collar job and drinks. As a portrait of thwarted masculine endeavour, Joe Kiley manages to be pitiable and frightening at the same time.
What gradually becomes apparent is that Joe and Rex are being woven into opposition by the author, and the growing antipathy Joe feels for his richer neighbour becomes the threat beneath which both Colt and Freya move and grow. This is not to suggest anything programmatic about the narrative; it is anything but. The novel’s centre of attention dances about with the agility of quicksilver.
But some common themes do emerge: the inevitable declination of parental perfection, for one. It is the first loss of faith, the first expulsion from Eden from which all others follow. “Once they ruled her life like gods,” thinks Freya of her mum and dad, “and in important ways they still do: but it’s clear they can offer their offspring no protection against things becoming worse and worse.”
From this first awareness emerges a second: such terrible freedom obliges the strong to undertake acts of heroism; to adopt the burdens which, it must be presumed, our elders and juniors cannot or should not bear. Though these notions flow organically from the social realm the novel describes, they have a metaphysical aspect, too. This is the story of two young people who decide to take on the suffering of others. Having overcome a wish to flee or place responsibility elsewhere, they attain a certainty that has more to do with character than age:
And Colt, who has grown so weary in these past cluttered weeks of bikes and pools and barbeques and drains and skateboards and ice-cream and sheds and wounded knees during which he’s only ever been falling, falling, feels an anchoring sense of relief to finally be given a price he can pay.
Of course, like all Hartnett’s work, it is possible to read Golden Boys for words in the right order alone: the sure rhythm, the startling similes, the frank joy taken in the sensual world. Or simply for the pleasure of story spun out of some miraculously self-replenishing imaginative substance: a web in which it is a pleasure to become entangled. AF
Hamish Hamilton, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 30, 2014 as "Sonya Hartnett, Golden Boys". Subscribe here.