Golden Child  – ★★★★
Claire Adam’s debut novel, which is set in hot and exotic Trinidad and Tobago, author’s native land, is a curious mix of a family drama, focusing on twins and parenthood, and a “mysterious disappearance” thriller. Clyde and Joy are typical parents living in southern Trinidad, trying to make their ends meet. Their twin sons – Peter and Paul – may look identical, but, in the eyes of at least one of their parents – they are very different. Peter is a diligent student and is considered to be a new academic star, whereas “that other one” or Paul is deemed “slow”, having a learning disability. When Paul disappears one day, the family has to finally confront their long-standing attitude towards him, as well as his unusual place in the family. Adam’s engrossing debut touches on many themes, including crime and the stresses of parenthood, but, at the core of them all, is a beating heart, an emotion, a special tribute to every child who once thought he or she was not good enough.
From the start, the book’s setting and the circumstances of the family makes one want to read on and on. We may start with the disappearance of Paul from his family home – the alarm that this raises, but the book soon turns back in time, and we follow the birth of the twins and the start of their formal education. We find out that Clyde, Joy and their two boys are not completely alone family-wise. They have Romesh and Rachel, and Philip and Marilyn, “their extended family”, to rely on in times of need. Above all, however, they have Uncle Vishnu, a well-to-do doctor, who is generous and always willing to help Clyde and Joy in their financial matters. It is interesting to read how the family dynamics change as unforeseen events start to happen.
Claire Adam is insightful and her characters are observant. She makes sharp observations on parenting and parenthood. Parents can only do what they can for their children, and, for poorer families, that may mean making difficult decisions about the time they spend with their children (since they have to work long hours) and what aspects of their children’s development to prioritise and when. This is also the issue at the heart of the novel, and Adam also plays with different contrasting options, for example Clyde thinks in the story: “They have two kinds of men in the world… two kinds of fathers. One kind works hard and brings all the money home and gives it to his wife to spend on the house and children. The other kind doesn’t do that. And nobody can control which kind of father they get” [Adam, 2019: 76].
The twins – Peter and Paul – are, of course, the centre of attention in this story. It is curious to read how their immediate and extended families view them. If Peter has always been viewed as a “good baby” or a “healthy baby” [Adam, 2019: 54/61], Paul is simply “the other one”. If Peter is academically “bright”, Paul is even called “retarded”. In this respect, the novel accurately points out the damning power of labelling and what it can do to a child’s development. Paul knows he is supposed to be bad at learning and “not as bright as his twin”, so, maybe, he acts the part – he does not know how not to be “slow” – it is already part of his identity because everyone tells him that it is. Perhaps, if there were no Peter, there would be no one to compare him to, and he would have been just “average”. The presence of the brilliant Peter only makes Paul’s “mental deficiency” even more pronounced.
It is then also clear that Golden Child deals with twinship and its nature, asking questions how twins should be brought up and at what point should they be separated. In this respect, the book resonated with personally since I have a twin brother. The position of Paul is particularly curious in the novel because he is growing up in the shadow of his brother, who is viewed as a child genius. The insecurity of Paul is very felt in the story, which is exacerbated by the fact that “Daddy” does not have much faith in him. It is clear that Paul is suffering from the “second child” syndrome and feels like a child who is not “good enough”. There is definitely a theme of family bullying in the story, and there is a feeling that some hidden injustice is committed in relation to Paul. The position of twins mean that they are always compared to each (and always will be) (hence the competition between twins), but the position of Paul is even worse since he is already categorised as worse than his brother. He had been categorised as such as soon as he emerged from a womb with a medical emergency, and he does not need to try anymore. When reading the novel, one may even think that Paul’s “acting up” and avoidance of tests and learning are meant for him to draw attention to himself by his family and to make them care for him. Paul’s terrible grades may also stem from his own childish logic that he would never be as good as Peter – why even try? or Peter is doing all the learning for him anyway.
Later in the novel, we realise what it means to live in certain rural areas of Trinidad in the 1980s (including all the violent crime and corruption that may occur), and we also learn that Clyde and Joy’s expectations for the future may never materialise, including their buying another house in a safer area. Since the book is told through different perspectives, new characters, including Father Kavanagh, priest-teacher, start to shed even more light on the familial situation, leading to a very emotional culmination of the story.
Adam’s book would have benefited from Peter also providing his perspective on the situation and on his relationship with Paul. His perspective is unique since he is Paul’s twin, and, therefore, a person who knows Paul best. Another weakness is the character of Clyde, the father. He is very unlikeable, but his final action or “impossible” choice in the story is too odd and unbelievable, especially taking into account all other elements in this story.
Though uneven in quality and under-thought, Golden Child is still a good debut worth reading. If the first part of the book is an engrossing account of a family with high hopes for the future, the last part is tenser and more fast-paced, and the finale is both beautiful and heart-wrenching.