Max Walker, the main character of Abigail Tarttelin’s recent adult novel, Golden Boy, is an intersex teen. According to MedlinePlus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, intersex is “a group of conditions where there is a discrepancy between the external genitals and the internal genitals (the testes and ovaries).” According to the Intersex Society of North America, intersex is “a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside…” For a more complete definition of intersexuality, please click on either link above.
In Golden Boy, protagonist Max was born with both male and female external genitalia, but self-identifies and is thought of by his peers as male. Smart, handsome, thoughtful and well-liked, he truly is a “golden boy”. As the novel opens, Max is unexpectedly raped by the son of his mother’s best friend, a teen whom Max and his family have considered his “cousin” since childhood. Max only reveals the assault to Archie, an empathetic doctor at a local clinic. The trauma of the rape and its aftermath cause Max to consider his intersexuality, his self-image and what his future holds, all topics that previously hadn’t crossed his mind to any great degree. In the midst of this Max meets Sylvie, a nonconformist fellow student at his high school, falling for her more deeply than he has for any girl he’s dated previously. Max struggles with whether to tell Sylvie about his anatomy and physiology.
Despite this premise, Golden Boy is anything but depressing. It is engrossing and connects the reader intimately with its characters. This connection is heightened by the novel’s format, in which chapters are narrated alternately by the principal characters. Apart from Max, Sylvie and Archie, the other major characters are Max’s mother, Karen, who doubts her own motherly abilities and can be overbearing in her desire to make Max’s life easier by making choices for him; Daniel, Max’s little brother, intelligent and sometimes volatile; and Steve, Max’s father, a man who has always wanted to let Max decide for himself who he is but who has often spent more time at work than with his family. I particularly loved reading Daniel’s chapters -- his precociousness, complete honesty and attempts to make sense of the adult events happening in his family brought a smile to my lips many times. Overall, it is quite impressive that a young author such as Tarttelin is able to inhabit so believably the separate consciousness of each character, when one is so distinct from the next in gender, age, occupation and/or life experience.
I highly recommend Golden Boy not just for those adults and older teens who’d like to learn more about intersexuality, but also for anyone interested in the teen emotional and social experience in general, as well as the complexities of family dynamics. To be inside Max’s head is to gain insight into the emotions that many teens feel as they come to terms with the fear of being seen as different.