Book Review: Golden Child by Claire Adam

Title: Golden Child
Author: Claire Adam
Publisher: Hogarth Press
Publication date: January 15, 2019
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A deeply affecting debut novel set in Trinidad, following the lives of a family as they navigate impossible choices about scarcity, loyalty, and love

WINNER OF THE DESMOND ELLIOTT PRIZE – “Golden Child is a stunning novel written with force and beauty. Though true to herself, Adam’s work stands tall beside icons of her tradition like V.S. Naipaul.”–Jennifer Clement, author of Gun Love

Rural Trinidad: a brick house on stilts surrounded by bush; a family, quietly surviving, just trying to live a decent life. Clyde, the father, works long, exhausting shifts at the petroleum plant in southern Trinidad; Joy, his wife, looks after the home. Their two sons, thirteen years old, wake early every morning to travel to the capital, Port of Spain, for school. They are twins but nothing alike: Paul has always been considered odd, while Peter is widely believed to be a genius, destined for greatness.

When Paul goes walking in the bush one afternoon and doesn’t come home, Clyde is forced to go looking for him, this child who has caused him endless trouble already, and who he has never really understood. And as the hours turn to days, and Clyde begins to understand Paul’s fate, his world shatters–leaving him faced with a decision no parent should ever have to make.

Like the Trinidadian landscape itself, Golden Child is both beautiful and unsettling, a resoundingly human story of aspiration, betrayal, and love.

Golden Child is an absorbing, heart-breaking book about a family’s life in Trinidad, about opportunities and tragedies, and about choices that should never be made.

The Deyalsinghs are a Hindu family living in rural Trinidad, far from city life and its conveniences. The water supply comes and goes, homes must be barred and gated to keep out the roving bandits and gangsters who are a constant threat, corruption is everywhere, and everyone knows everyone’s business. The father, Clyde, works hard to provide his sons with a better life than the one he had, while mother Joy’s extended family provides assistance and financial help as long as they are able.

The sons, Peter and Paul, are twins, but Paul was deprived of oxygen at birth and has been labeled “slightly retarded” all his life (although as we get to know Paul, this clearly seems to be a false label). Peter is brilliant and shines academically, but Paul struggles to keep up — yet Joy insists that the boys must stay together. A kind priest takes an interest in Paul’s education and offers to tutor him, yet Paul is constantly aware that he’s not good enough, that he’s a burden, and that his path will be different than Peter’s.

As the book opens, Paul has failed to come home one afternoon. With evening approaching, and all the danger night brings, Clyde begins a frantic search for him. We learn that there was a break-in at the house only weeks before, and that the bandits left frustrated at not finding money in the home.

From here, we flash back to the boys’ birth, early childhood, and years of school, seeing how the family grew and changed. We’re shown snippets of different times of the boys’ lives, and through these scenes, come to understand Peter and Paul’s connection to one another as well how very differently their family, schoolmates, and teachers view the two boys.

Finally, we come back to Paul’s disappearance, learning that he has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. In alternating chapters, we follow both Paul’s experience and Clyde’s efforts to free him. I won’t divulge how it works out, but it’s harrowing and frightening and absolutely awful to read about what Paul goes through.

It’s a little challenging to write further about this book without revealing the resolution, so I’ll just share some overall thoughts.

The structure of the book was an obstacle for me in terms of feeling invested. The opening, as the family realizes that Paul is missing and Clyde goes out to look for him, doesn’t provide enough information — I didn’t get a good sense of who this family is, what their background is, and how they fit into the world around them. It was only in part 2, as we go back through the family’s story, that I became more engaged with the characters. I get that this structure is a deliberate decision on the part of the author and editors, but in my experience, it was awkward and made me feel not particularly interested in the book as a whole. I’m glad I stuck with it, though, as it does pick up and become more cohesive once the background is provideed.

The depiction of life in Trinidad during the period in which the book is set is well-drawn, with an unvarnished portrait of a land that can be beautiful, but whose people prey on one another, where the economy offers few opportunities, and where grift and connections and playing along with the power structure can be the difference between life and death.

The characters are all sharply distinct, although Peter’s inner life is left unexplored. Clyde and Paul are the two most developed characters, and the more we get to know them, the more painful the book becomes to read.

Overall, Golden Child is a moving depiction of a time and place that I hadn’t previously known much about, with characters I ended up caring about and an ending that left me feeling gutted. It’s a tough read emotionally, with beautiful language as well as an overwhelming sense of sorrow.

Golden Child was my book group’s pick for May. I don’t know that I would have come across it otherwise, and as always, I’m grateful to my book group for broadening my horizons! There’s a lot of food for thought and lots to discuss and debate, and I’m so looking forward to hearing other opinions on this disturbing, powerful book.

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