‘Golden’ re­veals tar­nished truths

Very dif­fer­ent twins har­bor re­sent­ments

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Mark Athi­takis

The ti­tle of Claire Adam’s emo­tion­ally po­tent de­but novel, “Golden Child,” (SJP/Hog­a­rth, 288 pp., ★★★☆) is de­lib­er­ately am­bigu­ous. At the heart of the story are twin 13-year-old boys liv­ing in ru­ral Trinidad. Which one, we’re meant to ask, is the sun shin­ing on?

Peter is po­lite and stu­dious, des­tined for schol­ar­ships (one called a “Gold Medal”) that can pro­vide him with a ticket off the is­land. Paul, who was born chok­ing on his um­bil­i­cal cord, has grown into a wild-haired, rage-prone, slow learner nick­named Tarzan. Their fa­ther, Clyde, can’t help but fa­vor Peter, hav­ing de­cided that Paul is ir­repara­bly dam­aged. “He sees him­self walk­ing to the gates of the men­tal hos­pi­tal with two chil­dren, and send­ing one through the gates,” Adam writes.

As the novel opens, the imag­ined sep­a­ra­tion has be­come a real one: Paul has gone miss­ing. Clyde’s wife, Joy, at­tempts to be a calm­ing in­flu­ence – a re­cent home-in­va­sion rob­bery has trau­ma­tized the house­hold. But for Clyde, Paul’s dis­ap­pear­ance stokes long-sim­mer­ing re­sent­ments and fears. A la­borer, Clyde has never mea­sured up to the suc­cess of one brother-in-law, a prom­i­nent judge. He’s ha­rangued by an­other rel­a­tive who’s up­set at an in­her­i­tance Clyde re­ceived. And the news is filled with sto­ries of gang­land kid­nap­ping and mur­ders that dial his anx­i­ety up an­other notch.

“Golden Child” isn’t thick with the rich so­ciopo­lit­i­cal de­tail that marked the work of Trinidad’s most fa­mous nov­el­ist, the late V.S. Naipaul. Yet with a spare, evoca­tive style, Adam (a Trinidad na­tive) evokes the is­land’s com­plex­ity dur­ing the mid-’80s, when the novel is mostly set: the ten­u­ous re­la­tion­ship be­tween Hin­dus such as Clyde’s fam­ily and the twins’ Catholic school­mas­ter, as­sas­si­na­tions and ab­duc­tions hyped by lurid me­dia head­lines, re­sources that at­tract car­pet­bag­ging oil com­pa­nies but leave the coun-

try largely im­pov­er­ished.

“It is like there are two is­lands, Clyde thinks, one for peo­ple who un­der­stand about these things, and an­other for peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand.”

“Golden Child” mostly op­er­ates on an emo­tional plane. Adam shifts on oc­ca­sion into Paul’s point of view, re­veal­ing how badly Clyde has un­der­es­ti­mated his son’s in­tel­li­gence. What Clyde and oth­ers dis­missed as evil spir­its or men­tal ill­ness is mainly fear and shy­ness. (With per­haps a touch of dys­lexia: “Some­times the let­ters all ar­range them­selves and make sense, and other times they just look like ants crawl­ing around on the page.”) Paul is more emo­tion­ally alert than any­body has given him credit for.

That fail­ure of com­pas­sion makes the novel all the more brac­ing in its clos­ing chap­ters, which re­veal the truth about

“It is like there are two is­lands, Clyde thinks, one for peo­ple who un­der­stand about these things, and an­other for peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand.”

Paul’s dis­ap­pear­ance and Clyde’s ag­o­niz­ing de­ci­sions in re­sponse to it. Clyde’s head­strong ra­tio­nal­ity leaves a deep wound in the fam­ily.

“You see this coun­try?” Clyde says. “It’s im­pos­si­ble to live a de­cent life in this coun­try.” The is­land Adam de­scribes is in­deed an of­ten bru­tal place. But her novel sug­gests we be alert to how of many of those chal­lenges we con­jure up our­selves.


Au­thor Claire Adam

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