The Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald (1977) Mariner Books (1999) 192 pp
I have all of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels lined up on my shelf, knowing I’d have to read each after finding so much to love in The Bookshop (review here) and Offshore (review here). But I’d heard that her first novel, The Golden Child — published when she was 61, by the way — was a fun curiosity and not much more. Because I felt it might be the least of her fascinating work, I wanted to get it out of the way next, keeping her later work as something to look forward to. Consequently, with this self-imposed regulation, I’ve let far too much time pass, for I was not particularly interested in this book. I’m happy to say I’ve gotten this one out of the way, and I’m happy I can now move on.
So I didn’t particularly care for The Golden Child. But there are some good reasons this book might not be as interesting or impressive as her later work. For one, though already past the age of 60, this was Fitzgerald’s first novel. She’d been writing short stories for a while and had completed two biographies while in her 50s, but, from that perspective this is actually quite an impressive book. We can already see the skill and control she will use to create the masterful books for which she’s remembered. For another thing, Fitzgerald reportedly wrote The Golden Child to entertain her ailing husband. If it seems to rely more on coincidence, dispensing obstacles without resolution, who cares? I don’t have to like the book to appreciate what’s going on here.
And the story is fun. It is a cold morning at a famous London museum, and the public is shivering in line. The Golden Child exhibit, a royal child’s golden coffin and a variety of accompanying funerary art from the fictional African land of Garamantia, has arrived and is just about to open for traffic. Strangely, the elderly archaeologist who found the treasure, Sir William, now heads the museum but refuses to go down to see the exhibit. Making matters worse, someone has distributed to the freezing public a bunch of flyers about some type of curse.
Needless to say, mystery and intrigue — and death — ensue. We meet a small cast of central characters, central of which is the museum’s junior officer Waring Smith, who, Fitzgerald assures us, “was not an exceptional young man.” Smith knows something is amiss but cannot put his finger on it. One evening, after the museum has been closed, he goes down to the exhibit and sees the golden twine has been removed; soon he is waking up, gasping with a sore neck, on the floor because someone or something has just tried to choke the life out of him — and the golden twine has returned to its place.
As fun as the setup is, The Golden Child unrolls much like many other mysteries of its type and forces the reader to give way and roll a bit with the jumpy, shaky plot. The real fun is in the characterizations, a foreshadow of what’s to come in Fitzgerald imminent explosion of small novels. For example, we know early on that Sir William, who refuses to look at his own exhibit and may believe in a curse, is a feisty, disenchanted old man. Here he is talking to one of the museum’s more idealistic directors:
‘The object of the museum is to acquire and preserve representative specimens, in the interests of the public,’ he said.
‘You say that,’ returned Sir William, with another winning smile, ‘and I say balls.’
Connected to the strong characterization is the strong portrayal of the struggles for power amidst the disenchanted or misled heads of the museum. There is also Waring Smith’s very human struggle to do his job well to make enough to pay his mortgage while struggling to give his wife Haggie the attention she needs and, lately, is demanding in no uncertain terms.
So, in the end, it’s a short and fun book, but generally insubstantial. I’ve freed myself, and I’m looking forward to moving on.