Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 27, 2021

The Golden Book (2021), by Kate Ryan

If you pay any attention to the zeitgeist, you know that (noun-turned-verb) parenting is as contentious a topic as ever.  From Leunig cartoons to the school staff room—and in social media, of course—judgements are made about parents who don’t conform to The Right Way, but there is no consensus about what that might be.

Kate Ryan’s debut novel The Golden Book interrogates parenting styles in a story that explores responsibility and blame in the context of a child’s life ruined by a single reckless moment.

In the NSW regional town of Bega in the 1980s, best friends Jessie and Ali come from different backgrounds. Ali is an only child with a controlling mother called Diana and a compliant father called David.  They are teachers, they are middle-class, and their child lives in an ordered household with predictable routines, nutritious meals and good results at school.  Jessie is ‘free-range’, with three brothers, all four of these children from different fathers.  Jessie’s mother Aggie is anti-interventionist, haphazard, cheerfully disorganised,  and fleetingly interested in causes and half-baked efforts at crafts.  Her latest bloke is the unpleasant Claudio, and she is often stoned on weed.  Jessie is highly intelligent with a phenomenal memory but she is illiterate, probably dyslexic.  Her prospects at high school don’t look good, and she is often hungry.

Beginning to chafe at the loving but strict regime in her home, Ali is attracted to freedom and adventure with Jessie.  Together every day, they share a love of epic adventures in stories of the Greek heroes and the Knights of the Round Table.  Ali reads these books at home and retells them to Jessie, and at Jessie’s place, she also reads these stories aloud.  Jessie dreams up the idea of a series of covert quests to be undertaken before they turn thirteen.  These quests are really dares, and they buy a Golden Book to record the dare and its execution.  Ali does the writing, and Jessie cannot read what is written in this journal of risk-taking.  Some of these quests are semi-reproduced in the writing class that Ali attends as an adult, and this is how the reader recognises the risks being taken as well as the emerging fissures in the children’s relationship.

The structure of book, which nods at Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, is fragmentary, moving backwards and forwards in time and place as the adult Ali confronts her memories of the tragedy that befell Jessie.  In adulthood, Ali is a teacher like her parents, and with an ever-present awareness of the vulnerability of childhood she is over-mothering her nine-year-old daughter Tam.  Tam, like her mother before her, is attracted to an ‘unsuitable’ friendship that involves risk-taking too.  Bettany has a mother called Terri who is Missing-in-Action and leaves responsibility for Bettany to her morose elder daughter Megan. Parenting styles come to the fore when the adult daughter of Ali’s live-in lover turns up and creates chaos, culminating in risk to Tam.  Ed says he’ll ‘talk to’ Poppi but he doesn’t set any boundaries.

Examples of controlling parenting (Ali and her mother) are off-set by the free-range variety chosen by Aggie and the overwhelmed-by-the-disasters-of-life type framed by Terri.  In middle-age, when Jessie finally dies (which we know from the outset so that’s no spoiler) Ali has an epiphany about her sense of responsibility and blame for what happened, and the reader finally deduces how it occurred.

Do we all do parenting in the same way our parents brought us up, or do we react against it and become the sort of parents that we wanted our parents to be?  I think I was a mixture of both, but I’m not sure what The Offspring might conclude!

I think book groups would enjoy discussing the issues raised by this novel.

You can read more about Kate Ryan here.

Author: Kate Ryan
Title: The Golden Book
Cover design by Scribe
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2021
ISBN: 9781922310088, pbk., 256 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications


  1. Such an interesting sounding premise for a story. Not ever being a parent I can only talk about raising dogs so not much good here though at times there are similarities I am told. 😁


  2. LOL from my experience, children are much easier than dogs!
    Though there are similarities: just like children can be chalk and cheese within the same family, our three Silky Terriers all had the same upbringing, but their different temperaments gave different results. Topaze was as placid as a Labrador, Sapphire was a reincarnation of Marie Antoinette, and Amber is a bold and wilful dog who has no clear understanding that I am The Pack Leader!


  3. Sounds good and I can even get it here across the pond – in Audible format!~. I have to say it sounded a bit like “The Slap” by Christos Tsiolkas but maybe not at all like that. ???


    • Oh noooooo, Becky. Nothing like that one (thank goodness)!


  4. My parents were much more in the mould of Ali’s, so I knew I didn’t want to be like that but hope I didn’t up at the other extreme. Interesting topic!


    • That’s a bit how I feel…


  5. Gosh, sound really interesting, Lisa. We have Parenting Classes in the UK for people to be sent on if there are issues perceived via schools etc – it’s very Big Brother and makes me a bit wary. I was a terrible helicopter parent, and my kids still rib me about it. But my parents were fairly disinterested in many ways so maybe it was a reaction to that…


    • That’s interesting about the classes… I don’t know too much about how it works here. I once taught a child newly reunited with his junkie mother after she got out of gaol. To ease the transition there was a live-in helper of some sort, modelling parenting and how to do it (from meal routines to anger management). It lasted long enough for her to get full custody back, and then she went back to her old ways and the children’s lives were terrible. While his wasted mother slept in till noon, the 7 y.o. in my class was responsible for getting his little sister out of bed, washed and dressed and breakfasted and then brought to school. I’ll never forget that child, he was better off in foster care.

      Liked by 1 person

      • He would be – unfortunately in some cases the leopard will never change spots, despite everyone’s best efforts. You do feel for the children in these circumstances… :(


  6. This sounds fascinating, as you say, perfect for book groups! I’m not a parent myself but I know I was brought up very differently to my mother’s experience. Its such a complex issue and this novel sounds a really interesting exploration.


    • I know a couple of people who were Spock babies, so I wouldn’t recommend that as a method!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I was much too much like my father as a parent, but somehow the kids all grew up without rebelling as I had – well maybe they did, just in different ways. I feel like Kate Ryan should be told that most parents are somewhere in the middle, not out at the extremes, and that most kids work out ok despite their parents. (And why was an intelligent child, however dyslexic, illiterate at 13?)


    • LOL Bill, I’ve worked in schools where the parents who were out at the extremes certainly outnumbered the middles.

      Re the dyslexia: I’m not an expert on this, I’ve never had any special training, but I’ve taught my share of kids with grave difficulties learning to read. With regular one-to-one tuition and lots of patience, and a teacher’s willingness to try all sorts of different strategies, the kids I had did learn to read, including the boy who came to me in year 5 who could only read one word, his own name. But the thing is, that daily one-to-one lesson took place at lunchtime. I had to be willing to do that, every day, and crucially it was only do-able if I only had one child like that in my class. But even more crucially, he had to be willing to do it too. He was willing to give up playing footy with the other boys because he believed he could learn, and he did, though by the end of Year 6 he was still only reading like an 8 year-old. (And if the high school didn’t continue that daily intensive teaching, using the strategies that by trial-and-error, I’d found to work, then we can guess what happened to his progress.)
      There’s a lot of ‘if’ in that boy’s story. A lot of kids with reading difficulties don’t ever get the help they need.
      The child in this story, with no parent support from home, and irregular attendance at school, gave up trying.


      • Sounds like I’d better go by your lived experience.


        • With one exception (which I loathed) I always worked in disadvantaged schools, so I suppose that’s coloured my impressions.


  8. Do readers only learn what happened via Ali’s “epiphany”? Or does she have her epiphany but readers are afforded the opportunity to make up their own minds?

    And, so true! Kids don’t necessarily view parenting styles and patterns the same as their care-givers and, until they reach a certain maturity, aren’t always even aware of them (often until they have their own care-giving responsibilities, whatever forms those might take). But, eventually it happens…


    • Her epiphany is more about the way she has blamed herself for something that was not her fault.
      My experience with parents that even the most tolerant of us would have doubts about, is that their children tend to love them, even when they wish they were different, even when they let them down.
      it’s very sad.


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