Penelope Fitzgerald's first novel is packed with institutional follies and fiercely territorial old trouts. Set in a London museum whose officers only appear august, The Golden Child
literally proves that authorities are clowns and clowns authorities. As the book opens, all England is queuing up to see the golden treasure of the Garamantes--the remains of a young king who was interred complete with a trove of toys and goodies. Only the man who unearthed the kinglet back in 1913 refuses to go anywhere near the exhibit, despite his constant proximity: "Sir William, in extreme but clear-headed old age, and after a lifetime of fieldwork, had come to roost in the Museum itself." Meanwhile, everyone--from nations to corporations--wants a piece of the Golden Child. (The exhibit is even underwritten by a company that hopes its puff, "Silence is Golden," will give its cigarettes more positive associations.) What, then, if the relics are cursed--or fake?
As both possibilities grow increasingly likely, and the Museum risks ridicule, its director deputizes Waring Smith to transport the mummy's doll to an incorruptible expert. Too bad if Professor Semyonov is in Russia: this junior officer will simply have to smuggle the toy in! Suffice it to say that Waring's covert odyssey to Moscow is but one of The Golden Child's many witty--and enigmatic--episodes. Near the Kremlin, he comes upon a line that makes him think he's back at work. The citizens, though, have assembled for another mummy altogether:
The park statues were covered with shrouds of straw to protect them against the cold, but the human beings stood there, wiping the frozen drops from noses and eyelashes, waiting with immemorial patience to see what they had been told was worth seeing. In an hour and a half they would be filing past the embalmed head and hands, and the ghastly evening dress suit, of Lenin.
On the surface, Fitzgerald's 1977 novel is a bona fide mystery, complete with a body in the library and a spot of garroting. But adepts of this author will prize it for its pixilated cast of characters and for its gentle, perfect assaults on pretension--whether academic, journalistic, or even gustatory. As ever, Fitzgerald is drawn to explore the power--and sheer inconvenience--of the emotions. No wonder The Golden Child
's mysteries go so far beyond those of its genre. --Kerry Fried
--This text refers to an alternate
'Reading a Penelope Fitzgerald novel is like being taken for a ride in a peculiar kind of car. Everything is of top quality - the engine, the coachwork and the interior all fill you with confidence. Then, after a mile or so, someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window.' Sebastian Faulks 'Wise and ironic, funny and humane, Fitzgerald is a wonderful, wonderful writer.' David Nicholls 'The Golden Child is rich in the qualities which have marked Fitzgerald's subsequent career; a pleasantly uncluttered prose style; an eye for the absurd and pretentious; the knack of being able to give comedy an undertow of menace. Most museums take themselves too seriously: here is the perfect riposte.' Sunday Telegraph 'Penelope Fitzgerald combines some gentle mockery of museum bureaucracy and procedures and some sharp parodies - of memos, structuralist lectures, children's essays and committee jargon - with a more serious view of the responsibilities of museums. She shows culture off-handedly inflicted by curators on a patient, suffering public, who are depicted as endlessly queuing and being systematically denied information and tea.' TLS 'Penelope Fitzgerald's first novel degenerates amusingly into tortuous espionage, giving hints of the wit and wisdom to come in her later award-winning books.' Mail on Sunday