Every society has a founding myth that they tell themselves to explain why they came to be and what they value. The same is true for families, and it is certainly true of the Deyalsinghs of Trinidad in Claire Adam’s excellent debut novel. The overarching myth of this family—which includes Clyde, Joy and their twin sons, Peter and Paul, all descended from Indian immigrants—is that studious Peter is the golden child. Paul, born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, is a “little retarded.” In such families—and such societies—the myth is so all-encompassing that they believe that without it they will crumble. And they’re willing to sacrifice a great deal to keep it.
The tragedy is that Paul is not “retarded” at all. He’s dyslexic and may be on the spectrum, but he’s also perceptive, observant, brave and even bold. But even though his family loves him, those qualities don’t matter much.
One night, Paul runs away after an argument with his father. That scene opens the book, and the rest of the novel describes what led up to the day when Paul went missing in the bush and what happens after.
Adam was born in Trinidad and has a razor-sharp understanding of its society. If you’ve been to the Caribbean, you’ve seen a house like the Deyalsinghs’: low to the ground, faced with cinder blocks or stucco, with a roof of corrugated metal or tile, protected—imperfectly—by grates painted a lovely pastel color. Adam allows us to share in Joy’s resignation when the water pressure in the tiny house goes out, to know what it feels like to slosh through a monsoon and to imagine food that ranges from traditional rotis, curries and melongene choka to packets of Chee Zees. The author shows how American culture has infiltrated the island nation, from Kentucky Fried Chicken joints to movies and TV. And then there are the Deyalsinghs themselves, their neighbors and their somewhat nutty extended family. They are good and generous people—but the Deyalsinghs, especially Clyde, believe what they believe, and they’re sticking to it.
Golden Child is one of those uncommon debut novels that makes you eager to see what its author does next.