The Golden Child by Wendy James

The Blurb On The Back:

Blogger Lizzy’s life is shiny, happy, normal. Two gorgeous children, a handsome husband, destiny under control.  For her real-life alter-ego, Beth, things are unravelling.  Family tensions simmer and her daughters have moved into teenage-hood, their lives – at school, home and online – increasingly mysterious.

Then a fellow student is callously bullied and the finger of blame pointed at one of Beth’s girls.  As an innocent child lies suspended between life and death, two families are forced to question everything they believe about their children, and the answers are terrifying.

As unsettling as it is compelling, The Golden Child asks: how well can you know anyone in the digital age?

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Beth Mahony stopped work as a journalist when her husband Dan’s job took her and their daughters (14-year-old Lucy and 12-year-old Charlotte) overseas (Ireland, Canada and currently New Jersey in the USA). She started a mummy blog called DizzyLizzy to fill her time and although it’s never hit the big time, it’s had some success and she enjoys interacting with her regular readers – most of whom are ex-pats like her.

When Dan announces that his employer has asked him to move back to Newcastle, Australia, Beth is anxious.  Partly it’s because of the inevitable disruption to their daughters (Lucy – a quiet, stable girl – is actually pretty sanguine but Charlotte – bright and charismatic – has always been popular and will miss her large group of friends) but also Dan’s mother – Margie – lives in Newcastle and Beth’s hyper aware of how Margie disapproves of her and how she’s raised the girls.  Plus there’s Beth’s own mother, Francine (a Sydney socialite) who wants Beth to restart her career as soon as possible.

Still, Beth tries to make the best of it – buying a large house to do up so that she has a project and getting her daughters into the prestigious Hunters’ Ladies College.  She strikes up a friendship with Andi Pennington, a freelance lawyer married to police officer Steve who’s recently had a much-wanted baby Gus. Andi’s eldest daughter, 12-year-old Sophie, is a gifted piano player who won her a scholarship to Hunters’ Ladies College and is in Charlotte’s class.  Keen to cement their friendship, the two mothers arrange play dates between their daughters and Sophie’s delighted – overweight and friendless, she sees Charlotte as the chance for a real best friend – but Charlotte is less keen as she recognises Sophie’s lack of social status in school and doesn’t want it to stop her getting in with the popular set.

And then Sophie tries to commit suicide and is left in a coma and the emotional aftermath uncovers unpleasant truths in both families that force Beth and Andi to re-evaluate their relationship with their children and their own parenting skills …

Wendy James’s psychological thriller is a sharply observed affair on bullies and their victims and I enjoyed both the way James highlights the difference between the life Beth constructs for herself on her blog compared with what’s actually happening and the slow reveal of Charlotte’s borderline psychopathy but I wasn’t convinced by the twist ending (especially the set-up for it, which seemed a little undercooked).

I very much enjoyed the narrative style that James uses for Beth’s blog and how that throws up the inconsistencies with both what’s happening in reality and the doubts that come out in her third person chapters and special mention should be made to the comments on the blog, which feel particularly authentic.  I think it’s the fact that the DizzyLizzy blog seems so real that made the Golden Child segments so unsuccessful for me – especially given the reveal at the end – as the style seems more artificial and I wasn’t really sure why it was being put up on the internet other than to allow for the reveal at the end (not helped by the fact that the character responsible for it is quite underdeveloped).

I thought James did a good job at showing the anxieties of both Beth and Andi within their lives although I wish that there had been more of the relationship between Andi and Sophie after the suicide attempt (the build up to it is well drawn as is Andi’s guilt and anger when she realises what’s happened).  I also enjoyed the tensions Andi has with her husband, mother and mother-in-law over her family and her work life and how that feeds into the anxieties she has over her identity (something echoed in Andi’s sections and which contributes to the two women’s budding friendship).

The standout sections for me though were the ones told from Charlotte’s and Sophie’s points of view because James nails the pressure on children to be popular and the politics of popularity within schools. I really enjoyed the hard-eyed calculations that Charlotte deploys as she works out who’s popular in Hunters’ Ladies College and how she can break into that group and also how it makes her keen to avoid Sophie’s ambit because of the way it would prejudice her efforts to be popular.  I equally felt for Sophie in the chapters from her point of view as she’s aware of her low status and slowly realises that Charlotte will never acknowledge her at school but hopes that she might have a private friendship with her.  The bullying scenes are well drawn and – for me – difficult to read, both because of the casual cruelty and the stupidity of the comments that nevertheless cause hurt and upset.  I could well believe in Sophie’s growing despair, equally as much as in Charlotte’s developing psychopathy.

Ultimately I thought this was a good read and I would definitely check out James’s other work on the strength of this.

THE GOLDEN CHILD was released in the United Kingdom on 17th May 2018.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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