Book Review: The Golden Book by Kate Ryan

About the Book:

It’s the 1980s, and in their small coastal town, Ali and her best friend, Jessie, are on the cusp. With ‘The Golden Book’, a journal of incantation and risk taking as their record, they begin to chafe at the restrictions put on them by teachers, parents, each other. Then Jessie suffers a devastating accident, and both their lives are forever changed.

When Ali is an adult, with a young daughter herself, the news of Jessie’s death brings back the intensity of that summer, forcing her to reckon with her own role in what happened to Jessie so many years ago.

As this stunning debut moves back and forth in time, and Ali’s secrets are forced into the light, Kate Ryan asks profound questions about responsibility and blame, and, ultimately, about love.

Published by Scribe

Released 3rd August 2021

My Thoughts:

The cover of this novel fills me with such a sense of nostalgia. It reminds me of those square Kodak prints from the late 1970s and early 1980s, the way they would fade to a certain coloured sepia, always a little out of focus. I really enjoy Australian fiction set in the 1970s and 1980s. It was an entirely different time, the childhood of the unsupervised, I like to call it. And you didn’t need to have neglectful parents to earn these freedoms, they just existed. It was the way it was. I have friends in my age bracket from all walks of life, but we consistently have this in common. The Golden Book unfolds within this context, the unsupervised 1980s childhood, within the friendship of Ali and Jessie. When I think back to my childhood and catalogue the things I did without my parent’s knowledge, I balk at the thought of my own children having done the same. How I didn’t end up seriously injured – or worse – is unknown; I certainly put myself into plenty of situations where this could have happened. In The Golden Book, we see the darker side to this free-spirited childhood. We see what happens when something goes wrong.

The Golden Book is so named after a notebook created by Ali and Jessie, where they write their dares and quests. The book itself is quite pivotal within the story as we come to realise. Jessie is the daredevil of this friendship, fearless and reckless, a dangerous combination. She also has a significant learning disability that impacts on her behaviour – she can’t read – and I suspected there was some other delayed social skills going on there as well. As the girls got older, some of Jessie’s behaviour was bizarre, alienating her from even Ali, who could feel herself growing up and growing away from Jessie. Within their relationship, Jessie has the power in terms of the way in which she would pressure Ali into doing the things she wanted. Everything had to be on her terms; an attention seeking behavioural by-product of her family environment. As Ali feels the pinch of this more and more, she wields her own power with the pen; she is the only one in the relationship that can read and write, so she is the keeper of The Golden Book. As such, she begins to write things in there, knowing that Jessie can’t read them, about Jessie herself and even members of Jessie’s family.

When I think back to being twelve, thirteen, and even fourteen, I remember keeping a diary, and in essence, that is what The Golden Book becomes for Ali. I wrote some nasty stuff about other people in my diary. That’s what it was for. So, I could relate to Ali doing this. Jessie was frustrating her, bullying her into doing things she didn’t want to do anymore. She was growing away from her but couldn’t disentangle herself from her. So, she took back some of the power imbalance within the relationship. I really didn’t judge her for that. She was twelve. Yet as is the way with life sometimes, the girls relationship was irreparably damaged when Jessie had a terrible accident and from that point on, Ali, traumatised and riddled with guilt and shame, feels the weight of all those words she wrote, even decades later.

This novel is thought provoking, nostalgic, and quietly impactful. It slips between the past and present with ease, but you do need to pay attention, as it’s not structured in the way of alternating chapters or anything so obvious. Sometimes, Ali is taken back mid-scene; we’ll be in the present with her and then in the next sentence, propelled back to the past, and then back again. I didn’t mind this but readers who like clearly marked chapters of then and now may feel some frustration. The themes of trauma, along with the blurring lines of responsibility and blame, are all interwoven tightly throughout the narrative. We see the lasting impacts an accident like this can have on people, not just on Ali, but on Jessie’s family too. I highly recommend this one to those who appreciate literary fiction and to anyone with an interest in childhood trauma and its long-term effects into adulthood. Piercing and profound is how I would sum up The Golden Book.  

☕☕☕☕

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Golden Book by Kate Ryan

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