Why we love it: it’s a hot topic right now – teenage girls, bullying, and the perils of social media – a topic nailed by Aussie author Wendy James in her latest novel. The Golden Child is a disturbing yet funny look at the age-old problem of teenage girls and the very modern problem of cyber-bullying.
Lucy and Charlotte Mahony are Australian kids living in New Jersey with their parents, father Dan whose engineering job has taken them there and mother Beth who is happy doing the stay-at-home mum thing as she can’t work in the US. She does a bit of ‘mummy’ blogging on the side, keeping her hand in her field of PR and journalism and giving her something to do other than mother the girls. The parents long to move back to Australia, so they plan their return after Dan gets a new job in Newcastle. The girls aren’t as happy. Chirpy, good girl Lucy puts on a brave face, but younger sister Charlotte doesn’t hide the fact that America is where she wants to be. She’s the most popular girl in year six, beloved by pupils and teachers, but that takes a sudden dive just before their departure when her ‘gang’ is involved in the accidental poisoning of a child, in an initiation ceremony with an oleander leaf brought from the Mahoney home.
After dealing with the fall-out from this serious blot on Charlotte’s school life, the move home becomes a chance for a new beginning. Beth and Charlotte would have preferred Sydney over Dan’s more industrial hometown, and Beth dreads being too close to Dan’s patronising, proudly working-class, Roman Catholic mother. Despite all that, they soon settle in, and as usual Charlotte rises to the top of the social hierarchy at the new all-girls school and quickly becomes the most popular girl in the class. But after Beth befriends another mum at the school, Andi, whose slightly overweight, piano-playing prodigy daughter Sophie is the class nerd, things start to go wrong. When something terrible happens to Sophie, after her reaction to some horrific cyber bullying, Beth can’t believe that Charlotte could be responsible, despite all the evidence pointing to her culpability.
Wendy James gets right to the heart of the issues here – her depiction of Beth’s disbelief that her daughter could be involved in something so awful, and Beth and Dan’s blindness to their daughters’ true personalities is incisive, while her portrayal of Andi’s guilt is harrowing. As the mother of the bullied girl, Andi endures crushing guilt, blaming herself for neglecting her elder daughter in favour of her later child – her longed-for, IVF son. Why didn’t they pick up on the trouble sooner? Where did they go wrong?
While it’s a serious topic, The Golden Child makes for a compelling, sometimes funny, must-read for any parent. The shocking events that unfold in this page-turner are every parent of teenagers’ worst nightmare and yet we look on with fascinating horror as James outlines so much that rings true for modern day parents – with social media, cyber bullying, teen pressure, and teen angst. And there’s a delicious twist at the end that we didn’t see coming. The Golden Child is perfect for fans of Liane Moriarty.
Wendy James is the mother of two sets of siblings born eight years apart, in the digital and pre-digital ages. She is the author of seven novels, including the bestselling The Mistake. Her debut novel, Out of the Silence, won the 2006 Ned Kelly Award for first crime novel, and was shortlisted for the Nita May Dobbie award for women’s writing.