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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Golden Child

Penelope Fitzgerald

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To purchase The Golden Child

Title: The Golden Child
Author: Penelope Fitzgerald
Genre: Novel
Written: 1977
Length: 189 pages
Availability: The Golden Child - US
The Golden Child - UK
The Golden Child - Canada
Il fanciullo d'oro - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B : Fitzgerald does very well -- and has good fun -- with the museum trappings and characters in this old-school English mystery

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 4/12/2014 Alan Hollinghurst
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/4/1979 Newgate Callendar
The Times . 6/10/1977 H.R.F.Keating
TLS . 7/10/1977 T.J.Binyon

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is Miss Fitzgerald's first novel, and it is a classically plotted British mystery -- a tiny bit far-fetched, perhaps, but always within the convention of the genre. (...) Somehow Miss Fitzgerald, thanks to her lovely writing style and eye for the absurd, makes everything hang together." - Newgate Callendar, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Much good joking, if occasionally in-joking; good writing, too, if somewhat consciously so; social criticism even, if muted." - H.R.F.Keating, The Times

  • "Penelope Fitzgerald's novel is lively, witty and well-written. Among its more amusing exhibits are a package tour to the USSR and some Garamantian hieroglyphics, put to ingenious use." - T.J.Binyon, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Golden Child, Penelope Fitzgerald's first novel, is an old-school English mystery novel in a museum setting. The unnamed Museum where much of the novel is set is obviously based on the British Museum, and the grand winter exhibition on show, the Golden Treasure of the Garamantes -- which includes, most notably, the 'Golden Child' -- is clearly a variation on the British Museum's own blockbuster 'Treasures of Tutankhamun'-exhibit of 1972. The Golden Child similarly captures the popular imagination, leading to a huge crush of eager gawkers, long lines, and of course may 'golden' merchandizing opportunities. Of course, for those working in the huge museum, much associated with the exhibition is more annoyance than anything else.
       Being the first museum to host the exhibit is a great coup. One of their own, octogenarian Sir William Livingstone Smith, had (re)discovered the treasure way back in 1913. He remains a presence in the museum, even if his: "job was undefined" at this point. One reason the museum's director Sir John Allison allows him to continue hanging around is that Sir William had, over his long life, acquired a considerable fortune, and had: "made no secret of his intention to leave a large part of his fortune [...] to the Director, to be spent as he thought fit in the improvement of the Museum". (Sir John was expected to spend most of it on: "French porcelain, silverware, and furniture, the centre of Sir John's working life", which others in the museum were not that thrilled about, but he was the director, after all.)
       Sir William is still hanging on as the novel opens, but he isn't expected to last much longer. But, for the time being, the exhibit is enough to keep everyone quite busy and distracted (though Sir William himself chooses to have practically nothing to do with it).
       Garamantia is a rather forsaken country in the heart of Africa, with: "no oil, no natural defences, no army, no education, and no bargaining power", but they do have that historic Golden Treasure, and a tour of Western capitals seems the one way of attracting some international attention. The possibility of some curse being attached to the treasure -- "those who look upon the exhibition are doomed", a leaflet written by some opponent of the exhibition helpfully promises -- adds some welcome frisson for the exhibit-goers -- though it's no surprise that when the deaths begin they are entirely in-house.
       There are some experts to be entertained and dealt with, too: "distinguished anthropologist, anti-structuralist, mythologist and paroemiographer" Tite-Live Rochegrosse-Bergson, of the Sorbonne, as well as the unfortunately named German Garamantian expert, Professor Untermensch. (The German professor's name really seems too freighted with uncomfortable meaning for such a story; as to the silly-sounding Tite-Live Rochegrosse-Bergson, there's at least some explanation to that, as it is later revealed that he changed his name to this, in the late 1940s, reïnventing himself at that point for good professional reason.)
       To the extent that there is any central figure in the novel, it is young junior Exhibitions officer Waring Smith. He is married, but one of the running jokes in the novel is the parlous state of his marriage, with wife Haggie concerned that his attentions have drifted elsewhere, and the two never quite managing to talk things out in person -- with Waring admittedly having some explaining to do about what he gets up to (all of it essentially work-related obligation, in one way or another, but even getting that across to Haggie proves difficult). The money worries of domestic life weigh very heavily on Waring; as is, he's long found it: "difficult to think of anything else beyond his job and his mortgage payments".
       Waring is distinctly an underling, in an organization where there is a clear and strict hierarchy. Control is maintained -- if often somewhat loosely -- over who may do what and where; certain areas of the museum are off-limits to the likes of Waring, and keys granting access to some of these play some role in the plot. Even the police, when they come on scene to investigate, are put in their place -- which they more or less resignedly accept. (The police investigation putters along, but is hardly centerstage; this is not a police procedural.)
       A problem arises regarding the Golden Treasure, and it is Waring who is sent off to establish just how bad the situation might be (really just a formality: it's clear it's a real catastrophe); he's low-level enough that his absence won't attract much attention, and seen as capable enough to get the job done. The mission involves sending him to the then-still-very-much Soviet Union -- as part of a package-tour, since that's the cheapest way -- where he is meant to consult with an expert. Things do not go quite as he might have hoped -- there's quite a bit of bumbling about -- but he does come across Professor Untermensch in Moscow, and he does eventually learn the bitter truth about the Golden Treasure.
       The Soviet stay is advantageous for Waring in that it also provides him with an alibi -- as, he misses quite a bit of the action in his absence, most notably the first suspicious death. (The second death is less suspicious than obvious.)
       Among the clues which help crack the case is a clay tablet inscription. Less impressive than the gold objects, the ten-a-penny "wretched clay tablets" that are part of the exhibition are at least unquestionably authentic -- except for one that Sir William asked Waring to replace in a case. That one had a modern message, left by Sir William, who: "liked poetry, games, puzzles -- all arrangements of words, really", and Fitzgerald has good fun with the Garamantian ideographs and the possible English readings (including incidental observations about the language such as that: "There was no present tense. The Garamantians had no conception of the present. They thought only of the past and the future; hence, they were happy"). Eventually, the secret is cracked -- and with that the murders quite easily solved.
       The cast of characters is enjoyably oddball, including Sir William's factotum -- "nominally one of the warding staff, either on stores or cloakroom duties, but in fact acting as a kind of personal retainer to the old man" -- Jones, the kind of long-established worker who seems to know the entire place, and all the doings there, inside out, without making much of a fuss about things. There's also pregnant secretary Dousha, the enterprising Len Coker -- another young underling who is more willing to shake things up and challenge the system than Waring -- and the motley gang of museum functionaries, mostly eager to defend their small turfs.
       The Golden Child is, in part, a cruel-affectionate portrait of a museum -- a bureaucratic institution like any other, with long-ingrained peculiarities and staff --, and Fitzgerald has good fun in describing the to-do and the many issues around the exhibition -- successful, after a fashion, though behind the scenes a spectacular failure (and that's not even counting the incidental deaths). Those that work in the Museum certainly take it, in their various ways, very seriously -- including Sir William, who argues nothing less than that:

The object of the Museum is to acquire power, not only at the expense of other museums, but absolutely.
       It's all quite enjoyably done, though a bit far-flung (notably in its Soviet expedition), with Fitzgerald stuffing in everything from the geopolitics of large-scale exhibitions to the pettiness of narrow museum specialists. Waring, with his domestic troubles, makes for a decent central character, and Fitzgerald does manage to bring an awful lot of issues into her slim novel, from questions of class and (concern about) money, to various criminal behavior (including the growing of cannabis and Nazi-era art theft). The Soviet angle might be a bit harder to relate to in these long-past-Soviet times, but it's not a bad little twist either.
       Comfortably familiar with the English mystery-novel tradition, Fitzgerald manages a solid approximation thereof, and the humor, characters, and absurdities make for an enjoyable and solid enough read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 December 2020

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The Golden Child: Reviews: Penelope Fitzgerald: Other books by Penelope Fitzgerald under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Penelope Fitzgerald lived 1916 to 2000.

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© 2020-2022 the complete review

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