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Golden Child

Review

Golden Child

Would you sacrifice one child to save another? That’s the question at the heart of Claire Adam’s insightful debut, GOLDEN CHILD, set in Trinidad in the 1980s.

When 13-year-old Paul disappears, his hardworking father, Clyde, is more perturbed than worried. The patriarch of the Deyalsingh family has other things on his mind. A violent home invasion has destroyed the family’s sense of security, his wife wants to move to the safer yet more expensive capital of Port of Spain, and the salary from his job at the petroleum plant doesn’t stretch far. When Paul fails to return home one afternoon, Clyde sees it as yet another example of the boy causing trouble, something he’s been doing since birth.

Clyde’s one consolation in a difficult life is Paul’s twin, Peter. While Paul behaves oddly and struggles in school, Peter is brilliant, a possible candidate for “Yale, Princeton, MIT, all of them,” as a teacher explains to Clyde. This “golden child” of the title is the polar opposite of his brother, who is dismissed by his parents as “slightly retarded” due to some vaguely described “problems at birth.” In reality, Paul seems to suffer from some sort of learning disability. He describes words that “look like ants crawling around on the page,” and it is clear to the few who bother to pay attention (mostly a kindly Irish priest) that there is nothing seriously wrong with him. Yet in one of the book’s many tragedies, no one, least of all Paul himself, thinks to question the initial assessment of his intelligence. “It’s just --- it’s just how it is. Nobody said so, it’s just so,” Paul tells Father Kavanagh.

"[Trinidad is] a place of both great beauty and troubling inequality, where scarce resources force people into impossible decisions, as Adam shows with devastating clarity."

Clyde has watched as other family members have achieved the trapping of success --- a home with a matching living room set and windows that don’t leak, a Mercedes rather than a Datsun --- while he has relied on the generosity of others to get by. Bristling with wounded pride, he has poured all his frustrated hopes and ambitions into the elder twin. As for Paul, he occasionally entertains thoughts of depositing the wayward brother at St. Ann’s, a home for unwanted children.

Adam, a native Trinidadian who now lives in London, has taken a shopworn theme --- the child-in-peril story --- and given it new life. The result is both a gripping page-turner and a book about the heavy responsibility of parenthood and the ways that family ties bind and burden us. In a series of flashbacks, she reveals the history of the Deyalsinghs, giving context to Clyde’s initially less-than-sympathetic response to the kidnapping. The picture she paints is one of a society breaking apart at the seams. The threat of violence is constant, drug dealers buy off judges, and the old ways of life are disappearing. “Nowadays, things are getting harder; a man can’t make a living any more on the few fish he manages to pull in from the sea,” Clyde muses, as he longs for the simpler life of his youth. But he quickly reminds himself that he should not spend too much time thinking about things that cannot be, since “nice is one thing; essential is another.”

For Clyde, what is most essential is ensuring that Peter will one day be able to leave Trinidad and build a better life for himself. That single-minded goal is behind virtually every choice Clyde makes in the novel, for good or for ill. Adam deftly brings this well-intentioned yet emotionally distant and occasionally cruel man to life. She humanizes a person who wants to be a good father, even if he does not seem to know exactly how to do that for both of his children.

While he gets less space in the novel than Clyde, the sections told from Paul’s point of view are the most poignant. His secret thoughts and fears emerge, highlighting the vast gulf of understanding between him and his father. The other twin is more mysterious. Adam offers only few relatively brief flashes that don’t do enough to reveal the contours of Peter’s relationship with his brother or his feelings about being the favored son, and the weight that comes with that exalted status.

In the background of it all is the vividly rendered landscape of Trinidad, with its soft sand beaches, leafy bush and swaying coconut palms. It’s a place of both great beauty and troubling inequality, where scarce resources force people into impossible decisions, as Adam shows with devastating clarity.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on February 1, 2019

Golden Child
by Claire Adam

  • Publication Date: January 29, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: SJP for Hogarth
  • ISBN-10: 0525572996
  • ISBN-13: 9780525572992