Review: Victoria Flanaganon Sonya Hartnett

Not for children? Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett

Sonya Hartnett has never been one to shy away from controversial subject matter. Her latest novel, Golden Boys, is the story of what unfolds when a new family moves into a suburban Australian neighbourhood one summer. Set during the mid-1970s or early 1980s, it explores a time when children roamed the streets freely, the only constraint on their movement a mandate that they return home for the evening meal. Although this recent past might be romanticised by some as a more innocent time, Hartnett examines its darker side. She focuses on paedophilia and how it was enabled by social mores that allowed children to be unsupervised for long periods and which often failed to acknowledge the concerns of children who raised the alarm about inappropriate adult behaviour. The novel is narrated primarily from the perspective of two twelve-year-olds, Colt Jenson and Freya Kiley, both of whom are in the process of realising that their parents are deeply flawed human beings. Golden Boys is thus a story about lost childhood innocence and a transition to adulthood, which involves an emerging consciousness of the world as a morally ambiguous place.

What sets this novel apart from the majority of Hartnett’s work is that it has been marketed as a novel for adults instead of a novel for children. Hartnett has a long-established reputation as a children’s writer of the highest calibre, but during her career she has also produced several novels that have been designated ‘adult’.  Landscape with Animals (2006), which was published under the pseudonym ‘Cameron S. Redfern’, is the most obvious example here. It revolves around an adult couple embarking on a love affair and is sexually explicit. That it was published under an assumed name would seem to suggest that both Hartnett and her publisher were eager to distance this book from her previous work.

Two other Hartnett novels have stirred up controversy in relation to their intended audience: Of a Boy (2002) and, more recently, Butterfly (2009). Both are focalised by child characters and intimately explore the process of growing up. Like Golden Boys, these two novels have dark themes. The strange disappearance of three children, an allusion to the famous case of the Beaumont children, is the backdrop to Of a Boy, while Butterfly paints a disquieting picture of adolescent female friendships. But these novels also examine what ‘childhood’ means in an Australian social context, and thus have much to offer a young adult reader. The world that these novels depict is not the idyllic setting of many children’s books; it is marked by violence and tragedy. This does not mean, however, that such writing is unsuitable for young readers. Hartnett handles her material with great skill and it is her talent for taking what is ostensibly ‘adult’ and rendering it meaningful through the eyes of child characters that gives her writing its unique voice.

In a savage review of Landscape for Animals that appeared in the Age, Peter Craven asserted that Hartnett’s work had been unfairly pigeon-holed as ‘young adult’ simply because of its subject matter:

The fact that Hartnett has been classified as a ‘young adult’ writer for no better reason than the fact that her work encompasses family romances replete with incest and murder is just one of those farcical Australian horror stories.

Craven’s attitude to young adult fiction is patronising, but not entirely surprising. It is an obvious response to young adult fiction from adult critics to see it as a less sophisticated form of literary expression. I have always found such a position to be slightly ridiculous. The books that we read as adolescents often exert a profound influence on the kinds of readers, and even the kinds of people, that we later become. The pathway from childhood to adulthood is generally fraught, in one way or another, and the books that help us to make sense of this process can linger in a reader’s mind for a lifetime. Hartnett, I think, understands this well. Her novels are preoccupied with adolescence and offer her readers – be they children or adults – an insightful portrayal of how the process of ‘coming of age’ has both personal and cultural significance.

The question of what constitutes children’s literature and how it differs from adult literature is a perplexing one. Most of us probably have a sense of what a children’s book is and should be, and feel certain that we can recognise one when it is put in front of us. But how do we define exactly what children’s literature is and what it does? One possibility is to define ‘children’s literature’ as being the books that children and adolescents actually read. This is problematic, however, as many teenagers read more widely than the fiction that is specifically designated as ‘young adult’. The category itself, if not the genre, is a relatively recent invention. In Australia, the 1990s was the decade in which young adult fiction came into its own, spurred on by the incredible success of Looking For Alibrandi (1992) by Melina Marchetta. But anyone who experienced adolescence prior to the 1990s probably read and studied mostly adult literature while a teenager.

An alternative option might be to define children’s literature according to an author’s intended audience – although such an approach seems to ignore that the wider reception of a book can deviate from what an author might have originally conceived. A case in point would be J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), a modern classic that is often considered to be the first example of young adult fiction, in that its narrative spoke directly to adolescent readers. Initially published for adults, Salinger’s book was adopted by teenagers, who were drawn to its themes of adolescent angst and rebellion.

Sonya Hartnett’s intended audience is a subject that occasionally prompts some ire, as she has often been accused of writing books that are too difficult for children. It is an accusation that, quite rightly, makes her bristle. In an interview with the Guardian in 2002, shortly after she was awarded the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize for the novel Thursday’s Child (2000), Hartnett commented:

I have spent a great deal of my time defending my work against those who see it as too complicated, too old in approach, too bleak to qualify as children’s literature. This has been the bane of my life. I do not really write for children: I write only for me, and for the few people I hope to please, and I write for the story.

Hartnett’s sentiments are shared by Shaun Tan, an author and illustrator whose work for children has been similarly criticised for daring to explore dark themes. Tan also asserts that he writes books that he would enjoy reading himself, without pausing to think about their ‘appropriateness’ for a particular child reader. Both authors’ responses to questions about who they envision as their audience are reminders that an author’s intentions are often beside the point, as no author can ever be certain about how his or her book will be received. They also indicate that perhaps publishers and marketing departments play a more significant role in determining a book’s audience than the authors themselves. Hartnett and Tan both produce highly original and intelligent children’s fiction, and it may be the case that an overt meditation on, or awareness of, what constitutes a good children’s book might, in fact, hinder an author’s writing process. Indeed, it may be that this type of self-reflection produces overly didactic and heavy-handed books that seek to instruct young children about life,  rather than focusing on the story and how narrative might be used in more subtle ways to enlighten young readers about experience and meaning.

There is, quite obviously, a crucial difference between books for adults and books for children: narratives written for children generally seek to socialise their readers, educating them about the values that are prized or despised within a particular culture.  Although ‘didactic’ is a word often associated with children’s literature, it is one I would prefer to avoid. There are many overtly educative books published for children, but these are often the least successful with real child readers. Children rarely enjoy being preached to. A good book is typically subtler and ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’ its key themes. Nevertheless, books for children do attempt to provide models for good behaviour, or at least indicate the ways in which a human being might live a fulfilling life. Most adults would agree that writers for children have a responsibility in regard to how they represent the world to a young audience. This is why you don’t find books for teenagers that extol the virtues of promiscuous sex or illicit drugs, though this does not mean that books for children can never broach contentious subject matter. It simply means that they must do so in a considered manner, mindful that a book which deals with sex or drugs might be the first experience that a young reader has of how to deal with such things.

That Golden Boys has been categorised as ‘adult literature’ by its publisher seems to be a decision based purely on its subject matter. The book deals with paedophilia, a serious criminal problem within modern society. This would certainly seem to be inappropriate subject matter for young children. But Hartnett’s speciality is fiction for young adults. She also has a talent for writing about difficult or contentious subjects in innovative and sensitive ways. She established her reputation as a writer of daring and provocative novels for adolescent readers with Sleeping Dogs (1995), which dealt with the issue of incest. She has also tackled youth suicide in Wilful Blue (1994), miscarriage in The Ghost’s Child (2007), and the persecution of the Romany in The Midnight Zoo (2010). While she has produced three picture books – The Boy and the Toy (2010), Come Down, Cat! (2011) and The Wild One (2014) – it is her fiction for young adults that has received the most critical acclaim. Her young adult novels have won numerous international awards, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the largest cash prize in the world for children’s literature.

Hartnett’s propensity for taking up unusual subjects in her young adult fiction demonstrates that no subject need be off-limits in this genre, provided that the author handles his or her material in a sensitive and appropriate manner. Indeed, defining young adult fiction in relation to its subject matter is an extraordinarily old-fashioned and patronising way to distinguish literature for children and adolescents from writing for adults. Children’s lives are touched by all kinds of sadness and tragedy on a regular basis and denying them knowledge about the issues that affect them, on both a personal and political level, will only make dealing with such experiences more psychologically traumatic.

Instead of deciding that children or teenagers are incapable of dealing with certain topics, a much more productive approach to children’s literature would be to determine a book’s suitability for children according to how it depicts such material. If gruelling subject matter is represented in a sensitive manner, then why shouldn’t young people be encouraged to read it? And in the case of an issue such as paedophilia, which directly affects the lives of children, would it not be wiser to make them aware of its existence in order to better protect themselves?

Golden Boys does not contain graphic depictions of sexual violence, nor does it sensationalise criminal behaviour. In fact, its treatment of paedophilia is extremely subtle – in that the novel is not narrated from the perspective of the children directly involved. What it offers its readers is a portrayal of a flawed world in which such events do occur. It gives an account of children coming to terms with this knowledge. This is realism at its best: a representation of life as we know it, which attempts to make sense of the events that shape individuals’ lives. Golden Boys is a poignant account of the maturation of two children who are affected by the sinister actions of their fathers, and as such its subject matter is highly appropriate for adolescent readers, many of whom are grappling more generally with the process of carving out an identity that is separate from that of their parents.

To narrow this down somewhat further, the most useful definition of ‘children’s literature’ (and I include young adult fiction in this broad category) that I have encountered thus far, in a career spent working with children’s books, is that any book that is told from the point of view of a child or adolescent character, and which explores the process of growing up and maturing, will probably have some appeal to a child or adolescent reader. Despite being labelled an ‘adult’ novel, Golden Boys easily satisfies these criteria. Its tale of two families is told only from the perspective of child characters – primarily Colt and Freya, the eldest children of each family. Hartnett’s skill is such that her narratives often encompass multiple points of view, illustrated here in the way that the story frequently incorporates the perspectives of younger siblings (but never any adult character).

For Freya, the Jensons represent everything that her family is not: they are impossibly well-presented, courteous and charming. Like her two younger brothers, Declan and Sydney, she is drawn into their orbit when they move into her neighbourhood. The Jensons’ house is brimming with the latest toys and has a brand new swimming pool. Its doors are always open to visiting children – unlike Freya’s own home, which is rowdy with children, but oppressed by the shadow of her alcoholic father and the rows he causes with her contemptuous mother. Freya is bright, contemplative and independent, but as she becomes increasingly conscious of the adult world, she also becomes disillusioned with her parents and the flimsy foundations on which her family has been built. Into this angst comes Rex Jenson, Colt’s father, who offers Freya sage advice that helps her to make sense of what is happening inside her head and out.

Freya’s perspective is contrasted with Colt Jenson’s decidedly different experience of his father. The novel opens with Rex presenting his two young sons with the most prized toy of the novel’s 1970s-1980s setting – a brand new BMX bike. The incident is coloured by Colt’s discomfort around his father. It is not fear that he feels – at one point during the encounter he thinks of Rex as ‘absurd’ – but a deep sense of unease, one that even he doesn’t completely understand:

It is murky, this perception – he has a sense of something charmless shifting its position, something which sees him but which he is failing to see.

Perception, and how it shifts as children develop into adults, is a central theme of Golden Boys. Each child’s voice is limited and naive in its own unique way, and Hartnett uses these partial glimpses to construct a world that is never fully revealed. It is only by making connections between these gaps in perception that the reader can make sense of the narrative as a whole. Some might feel that such a strategy is too demanding for young readers, but this fails to recognise that all narrative works like this to some extent. Such a piecing together of information is also an effective metaphor for adolescence, which involves the gradual entrance into a new world of adulthood.

The experience of being an adolescent is something that Hartnett captures expertly. Her prose is exquisitely crafted – simple, yet dense with meaning – and her portrayal of what it feels like to be a teenager, of the awkwardness and alienation that so often defines the bewildering transition to adulthood, is always compelling. Here, for example, is her description of Freya’s realisation that she will soon leave childhood behind:

Now she’s older and smarter, and she’s starting to see that the world is a castle, and that a child lives in just one room of it. It’s only as you grow up that you realise that the castle is vast and has countless false floors and hidden doors and underground tunnels; and that the castle is haunted, and that the castle scares even itself. And as you get older, you’re forced out of the room, whether you want to go or not.

One of the reasons Hartnett’s writing for young adults has always been considered exceptional is the complex responses it demands from them. Her novels never patronise. They present the world as full of both beauty and sadness, and suggest that people are similarly nuanced in their outlook and motivations. Importantly, her novels eschew sugar-coated finales. This marks Hartnett as different in a publishing landscape that rarely experiments with endings that go beyond valorising children’s happiness and achievements. Freya’s incomprehension of her father’s destructive alcoholic behaviour and her unbearable disappointment when she learns about her parents’ shotgun marriage; Colt’s taciturnity and his unwillingness to befriend the local children; Sydney’s urgent, desperate need to swim in the Jensons’ pool, no matter the cost – Hartnett weaves them into a rich tapestry of childhood experience that will resonate with a wide variety of readers.

Violence is abundant in Golden Boys, perpetuated by both adults and children. A sense of tragedy permeates the narrative, emanating from the children’s emerging consciousness that the adults in their lives do not offer safety or protection. Declan, Freya’s brother, is the first to articulate this phenomenon as loss and lack:

standing in the still yard with the upturned bike and the waning light it suddenly seems that everyone is weak, his sisters with their plastic tree, Syd with all his wishful dreams, Colt alone in the middle of the road, even Garrick Greene with his brutal brothers and surly mind and the money he needs to keep the friendship of his friends: they are, all of them, bumping along as helplessly as silver balls in a pinball machine.

This vulnerability arises from the children’s inability to explain or understand the violence practised by the adults around them. Within their own lives, violence becomes a simple way to exert power and order. Unlike the adults, whose behaviour goes unpunished, the children enact a rough sense of justice among themselves. Ultimately, the lives of Colt and Freya are tinged with sadness, but are never hopeless. The novel’s ending only offers the most partial of resolutions. This is a trademark of Hartnett’s. She presents textual worlds that are full of heartbreak and loss, yet her stories are simultaneously underpinned by a deep appreciation for the beauty and mystery of life. This is why her books are so well-suited to young readers. They acknowledge the imperfections of human beings, yet are also a testament to their resilience – and thus may provide comfort to individuals navigating the rocky chasms that can sometimes appear on the path to maturity. This ethos is expressed most effectively in another of Hartnett’s novels, The Midnight Zoo. Like Colt and Freya, the central character of this novel is on the cusp of entering an adult world which is similarly characterised by violence and depravity:

Andrej remembered the boy he’d been such a short time ago – a boy who had trusted that the world was strict but fair. Since then he had seen this faith upended and made laughable. In this new world, a kite could betray the children who played in its skimming shadow. A soldier was not an honourable warrior, but one who chose his victims from among the innocents. A woman could steal a baby, a man would obliterate a town. This wasn’t a world that made sense to Andrej: it was a hard wintry shell of a world, bare of compassion.

Yet for all that, he still trusted. It amazed him to discover it: that underneath his grief and disenchantment, his belief in a good world was still there. And the more difficult it became to find that goodness, the more certain he was in his faith that it was there.

Hartnett’s belief in a good world is what sustains her writing for young adults. It is also at the core of Golden Boys, evident in its young characters’ dignified struggle to come to terms with the often destructive social environment into which they have been born. Having only encountered Hartnett’s writing as an adult, I find myself constantly wishing that I had had the opportunity to read such wonderful, moving examinations of the human spirit as an adolescent. Her work is the epitome of ‘crossover fiction’, a term that has gained popularity over the past decade to refer to books that appeal to both adult and child audiences. There is nothing new about such a phenomenon, as children have historically adopted adult books as their own on a regular basis. If anything, what Golden Boys capably demonstrates is that, in the hands of such a skilled author, even the most ‘adult’ subject matter can be represented with such sensitivity that it is eminently suitable for younger readers too. Golden Boys might be marketed as an adult novel, but its story will also resonate with the adolescent readers who have come to love Hartnett’s unique way of looking at the world.