A sub­tle and sen­si­tive por­trayal of two very dif­fer­ent sons and a fa­ther’s dilemma in ru­ral Trinidad

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Claire Adam’s de­but novel is set hours from Trinidad’s cap­i­tal in a part of the is­land that one char­ac­ter de­scribes as “only bush-and-ban­dits”. In a mod­est home, with crack­ing walls, Clyde Deyals­ingh is try­ing to build a fu­ture for his fam­ily. He has twins, Peter and Paul, who share a bed, un­der which their books are kept. Clyde’s wife asks him to buy shelves, but he is sav­ing for a big­ger dream. He has bet all his ef­forts on Peter’s prospects.

Ge­net­i­cally, the twins are iden­ti­cal, but they are as dif­fer­ent as can be. Peter is the golden son. He walks tall and proud. From a young age, he is ac­knowl­edged by ev­ery­one to be spe­cial. In exam af­ter exam, he scores top marks. His fa­ther hopes he will win the Golden Medal that will award him the prize money to study in Amer­ica.

Ac­cord­ing to fam­ily lore, Paul is “slightly re­tarded” due to a prob­lem at birth. At 13, he wears his hair so long and wild that ev­ery­one in the neigh­bour­hood calls him Tarzan. He is a day­dreamy kid, who finds that when he tries to read, the let­ters “look like ants crawling around on the page”. Paul dreams of leav­ing school, get­ting a job, and us­ing the money to buy baggy jeans and Ray-Ban sun­glasses. The rest he would give to his mother in “a big wad of cash”. Then one night, Paul dis­ap­pears. Clyde skips work to search the is­land for his un­golden child.

When I re­alised Adam’s novel was about a miss­ing twin, I ex­pected mis­taken iden­ti­ties or im­per­son­ations: es­sen­tially gim­micks. What I got was an ex­am­i­na­tion of par­ent­hood. As I read Golden Child, by Claire Adam, Faber, £14.99 an old ex­pres­sion flick­ered on the edge of my con­scious­ness – rob Peter to pay Paul. We all know that feel­ing of be­ing stretched be­tween obli­ga­tions, the dread that we will fail some­one dear. For many that’s just par­ent­hood. If there’s enough money, there isn’t enough time. If there’s enough time, there isn’t enough pa­tience. Chil­dren won­der: why do I have to in­herit her hand-me-downs? Why is he al­ways for­given, when I am pun­ished? Is he bet­ter look­ing? Is she smarter? Am I loved less? Am I wor­thy of the love I re­ceive? With luck and kind­ness, when the sib­lings grow up these dif­fer­ences can be joked about over lunch: the bit­ter­ness adds flavour like salt to good bread. But what if the stakes are higher? What if only one son can have the fu­ture the fa­ther dreams of?

I won’t give away the plot, but I will say there comes a mo­ment when Clyde must choose be­tween his two sons. His an­guish is del­i­cately ren­dered. He wor­ries for the safety not only of his chil­dren but of his wife. He tries so hard to walk the straight and true path. He be­lieves the kind of man you have for a fa­ther de­ter­mines your fu­ture, and “no­body can con­trol what kind of fa­ther they get”. Clyde spends all his ef­fort on be­ing the right kind. He is will­ing to sac­ri­fice leisure, his fa­ther’s home, his own pride, any­thing it takes for his sons. It should be enough to care for two boys. But some­how it isn’t.

Al­though Clyde is our guid­ing eye, the nar­ra­tive stretches be­yond him. We see Paul’s in­ner life – one that is en­tirely hid­den from Clyde. Paul has an artis­tic eye and ap­pre­ci­ates “the bright, round moon” and “the pin­pricks of stars”. We dis­cover that much of his ap­par­ent stu­pid­ity is ac­tu­ally shy­ness. He is afraid of ex­ams, of school, and of his fa­ther’s rage. We find out that he is kind: at night, he lets his brother take more than his share of the bed. We view the fam­ily from the out­side through the eyes of Fa­ther Ka­vanagh, a priest who is giv­ing Paul pri­vate lessons. Fa­ther Ka­vanagh does not be­lieve Paul to be “re­tarded”; to him, Clyde ap­pears ex­treme in his fix­a­tion on se­cur­ing a bright fu­ture for his golden son.

Though much time is de­voted to the psy­chol­ogy of his brother and fa­ther, the novel dips only briefly into the mind of Peter, the golden child. I wish the son af­ter whom the book is named had been af­forded a few more pages, but in those that we are given, Adam is sub­tle and del­i­cate in her por­trayal of the unique stresses of be­ing the favourite child and the one on whom the fu­ture rests.

Over­all, this book man­ages to com­bine two things rarely bound to­gether in the same spine: a sen­si­tive de­pic­tion of fam­ily life and the page-flick­ing ur­gency of a thriller. And it will leave you won­der­ing what you would have done in Clyde’s place. A fa­ther searches the is­land for his miss­ing son

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harm­less Like You is pub­lished by Scep­tre. To buy Golden Child for £13.19 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

Golden Child

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