‘Golden Boy’ by Abigail Tarttelin

*This review will contain spoilers!*

‘Things like this never happen. They happen to other people, but not to you, not to me. Not with moody-but-harmless Hunter. Not with the son of your parents’ best friends. Not with your best, true, forever friend when you were a kid. Not in sleepy, small town Hemingway. This happens to people in dark alleyways, at night, with strangers. This happens when you’re lost in a city. More to the point, this happens to girls. So I’ve been thinking so far, This isn’t happening.’ 

Max Walker is a golden boy. He’s captain of the football team. He’s never failed an exam in his life. He lives comfortably as part of a white upper-middle class family in a suburb of Oxford, with his little brother Daniel, Karen, his mother and a high-flying barrister, and his Crown prosecutor father, Steve. There’s no doubt that Max is one of the most popular kids in school: every guy wants to be him, and every girl wants to be with him.
But Max has a secret – he’s intersex. Being intersex means being born with a reproductive system, chromosomes or genitalia that fall somewhere between the binary of male and female, effectively making you both male and female, but also neither male nor female. Max has a female reproductive system but identifies as male – he doesn’t have breasts, and he experienced a course of testosterone shots in his early teens.
The only people that know about Max are his parents, their best friends Leah and Edward and their son Hunter. Hunter and Max have been best friends since they were born – Hunter being only a few months older than Max – and he’s always trusted him with his secret.
In the week before Max’s sixteenth birthday, Hunter comes in to his room and – as I’m sure you can guess by the quote at the top of this review – he sexually assaults him. Because Max identifies as male and is heterosexual, he’s never done anything sexual with a man before: he’s terrified, in pain and utterly ashamed by what happens. He blames himself for being intersex, wondering if he’s always going to be a curiosity that people feel it’s their right to explore.
If you’re sensitive to scenes of rape and find it triggering or upsetting, I’d sincerely suggest you skip the first chapter of the book told from Max’s perspective. It’s harrowing and very distressing, and I don’t often get as emotional as I did. I had to put the book down after reading it and have a break, because I was just utterly devastated.
However, I do have to give Abigail Tarttelin credit – she writes it in a sensitive and emotional way, and the scene is not included for the shock value. I felt so upset from reading about it, and it made it impossible not to care for Max. The majority of people won’t have had experience with being intersex, but the empathy she evokes puts you straight in his shoes.
Yes, that chapter is awful to read, I’m not denying that. But people always talk about the statistics of transgender and intersex rape: rarely do they tell the story from the victim’s perspective. Using a person – a well-rounded, realistic character – is much more effective than listing numbers.
Max deals with the rape extremely maturely. He decides not to go to the police – because of his parents careers there’s no way that they wouldn’t find out, and he doesn’t want to ruin their relationship with their best friends. He takes himself to the doctor’s surgery in town and gets the morning after pill, and then starts coming to terms with what happened and begins moving on with his life.
However, Max’s female reproductive system is fertile, and when he is sick jut after taking the pill it hasn’t had time to take effect – three months later, Max discovers he’s pregnant. He decides to get rid of the baby almost straight away, and his mother persuades him to have a hysterectomy at the same time as his abortion. The surgeries are booked and the time is fast approaching, but Max can’t stop thinking about the fact that this might be his only chance to have a child naturally. The wheels have been set in motion for his abortion, but will he have time to decide what exactly he wants?
I haven’t read many books featuring teen pregnancy that have mentioned abortion, so I really appreciated that. Sometimes authors seem to be extremely pro-life and won’t represent any of the other choices available, so it was good to have another option shown. Max’s struggle is written beautifully, and it’s impossible to guess what he’ll choose to do before it happens.
I loved the story of ‘Golden Boy’, but I think what really pushed this book into 5 star territory for me was the use of the multiple narrators. Throughout the novel we have six perspectives: Max, Daniel, Karen, Steve, Sylvie – Max’s eventual girlfriend – and Dr Varma, the doctor that he confides in following his rape.
I don’t think the book would have been as effective if it had only been told through Max’s perspective, as we wouldn’t really know what the other characters have thought or felt towards Max. He believes he knows how his mother and father feel, but when we actually get to hear it from them it gives us a lot more of their backstory, including the time just after Max was born. Karen and Steve have such differing ideologies about Max, and they never really agree with each other – Karen is determined to help Max live a ‘normal’ life, while Steve just wants his son to be able to be himself, not needing to experience surgeries or intrusive examinations from doctors.
Daniel has some form of mental disorder (or, at least, I assume he does). He constantly fantasizes about robots, refuses to follow rules as they aren’t logical, and has constant temper tantrums. He goes through quite a large character development throughout the novel, and by the end he does seem to have settled as his family have entrusted him more with their secrets: it feels as though more could have been done with his character, but at only 10 years old that might have been tricky.
Sylvie was one of my favourite perspectives: she’s one of the only characters I’ve read that has had convincing panic attacks, and when Max entrusts her with his secret she’s not ashamed to admit that it’s a little more than she can cope with. There’s no manic pixie dream girl here, which is a relief.
However, I think the best inclusion was Dr Archie Varma. By including the perspective of a doctor, it’s a non-preachy way to educate and inform about intersexuality: she reads her research and plans how to let Max know what she’s discovered, which lets us know all of the information we need without it being boring or like a lecture. Abigail has certainly researched intersexuality, and I feel as though I know a lot more about it now than I’ve learnt during the rest of my life.
I haven’t read many books featuring an intersex character, but with a recommended reading/watching list included at the end of the book that’s definitely going to change. If you’re interested in reading a book featuring a unique and lovable main character, I can certainly recommend this one for you – just keep an open mind, as some of the debates regarding sexuality and gender are ones that will have you thinking for days.