August 2018. The Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald

There was a grand turn out of nine people today for Penelope Fitzgerald’s ‘The Golden Child’. It was her first work of fiction written in 1977 in part as a protest of the poor museum experience at the dimly lit Tutankhamun exhibition, and as an amusement for her terminally ill husband.

A word that occurred fourteen times in the discussion notes was ‘absurd’ – four of us used the word admiringly and with great fondness for the apparently haphazard splashes of colour and images, and muddles of madness and violence that adorn the work; five were less than enthusiastic referring to the plot as “incoherent”, “made up as she went along”, a “patchwork of ideas”, “inhabited by unrecognisable caricatures”. We were unified in our dislike of the portrayal of all three female characters, one of whom doesn’t even appear.

The shift of the plot to Russia seemed all too surreal for some – as for the Russian circus….? And yet – and yet – one or two of us toyed with the thought of Fitzgerald writing about a certain perfume spray discovered just recently in a Salisbury park ….. how might Fitzgerald enjoy the macabre tapestry of such an unlikely plot?

“Overwrought” was the description of one devoted admirer who did not fail to recognise the gentle qualities of Waring or the extremes of the ‘fish finger exquisite’ Marcus Hawthorne-Mannering, Keeper of Funerary Art; both treated like the majority of other characters with deadpan humour.

Is the book dated? Has it become a period piece? Surely we reasoned, such a fake Museum exhibition could never convince a sophisticated modern audience or get past the many experts who would interrogate and analyse the exhibits. Papier mâché – gold leaf? No, no. Too absurd….   The general public is more than capable of distinguishing reality from absurdity, truth from lies….?

The overall score was 6 out of 10, with a range from 3 to 9 and a request to put Fitzgerald’s last novel ‘The Blue Flower’ on our reading list.