Golden Days by Caroline Barron (Affirm Press, 2023), 288pp, $38
The novel Golden Days by Caroline Barron, which combines a coming-of-age story with the tale of a woman in the throes of a mid-life crisis, is a very assured debut. Barron, whose memoir Ripiro Beach won the 2020 New Zealand Heritage Literary Award for Best Non-fiction Book, is a writer interested in memory, and remembering and misremembering. Golden Days explores this central preoccupation through a number of conceits and tropes: the intoxication of a new creative friendship; the damaging effect of the male gaze in mid-1990s culture; how we rewrite history to live with ourselves; and the importance of facing the truth after trauma.
The story traverses two timelines: 2013, when the protagonist, Becky Chalke, is in her mid-thirties, and 1995, when she was nineteen. In 2013, Becky is an Auckland businesswoman falling apart after learning her husband has had a heart attack while with another woman. As she begins to examine what’s gone wrong with her life, she looks back to 1995, a magical time when a close friendship with another young woman sparked a period of creativity and discovery.
The mid-1990s nightclub scene in High Street was the playground for university students Becky and her new friend, Zoe Golden, and it was an intoxicating experience that she’s never been able to replicate. This friendship between nineteen-year-old Becky and twenty-year-old Zoe is as intense as any love affair. It sets the relatively conservative young Epsom woman down an exciting new path leading to an enchanted world she had been hoping would appear when she started university. The author presents the relationship between the two as uneven, where the glamorous upstart Zoe holds a lot of power over Becky, who is quickly in her thrall.
While the attraction Becky has to beautiful, petite Zoe is pretty obvious—she’s an artist with an enormous presence who makes any room stop and pay attention when she enters— it’s less evident what Zoe sees in Becky.
But for Zoe, it’s Becky’s settled, ordinary life with a stable family that Zoe longs for; Becky’s parents and doting older brother Chris are perfect in Zoe’s eyes. Zoe has had a string of ‘uncles’, moving around a lot with her mother, who has never been much into discipline.
And Becky, Zoe soon discovers, has a way with words that Zoe, fiercely ambitious as an artist, understands can help her in her art practice. Meeting Zoe sparks a creative surge in literary wordsmith Becky, whose poetry in turn elevates Zoe’s artworks.
Their art is like a conversation, a call and response. Barron beautifully describes the chemistry of a vital friendship at a young, impressionable age. Becky says: ‘Zoe and I … were like water. Separate, we were one thing—she perhaps hydrogen, two atoms taking up most of the space; and me a singular atom of oxygen but together we became an entirely different compound. Or at least I did.’
The two friends explore spirituality together. Zoe likes to describe herself as a ‘divine and spiritual being’, and Becky yearns to bathe in the same aura. ‘At the time I’d wanted more than anything for some of her magic to gild me too’, thinks Becky in later years.
Becky’s pals, though, observe her friendship with Zoe with some concern. Becky’s friend Peter tells her: ‘You and Zoe were like the sun and the earth. She was the sun and her insane gravity kept you circling her … Sometimes the atmosphere can change. And so can all the rules.’ Becky always thinks she is better than her regular self when she is with Zoe. However, Zoe has the capacity to make Becky feel both remarkable and inferior at the same time, notes the omniscient narrator.
The newly involved young women are inseparable, Becky dropping her best friend Meg without much thought, and they almost feverishly sail a wave of creativity and experimentation in that summer of 1995, with its atmosphere of fin-de-siècle decadence. Zoe introduces her to a glittering world of fashion, music and clubbing in Auckland’s High Street. They were allowed in everywhere, they were like minor celebrities, everybody wanted to know them, remembers Becky.
Barron gives an excellent depiction of the people and personalities at the night spots in this period; her own playground you suspect. The vibe of the inner-city leaps from the pages. You can smell the aftershave and hear the music. Box and the DeBretts bar were some of the venues, Alanis Morissette was on the radio, Kiwi rock music was thriving and ‘How Bizarre’ was the ubiquitous earworm of the time (Barron even provides a Spotify playlist of the songs, included at the end of the book).
The author, now writing in a #metoo world, makes it clear that the social activities of Becky and Zoe in Auckland’s High Street and beyond often put them in real danger. Barron comments on the vulnerability of young women of the mid-1990s through Zoe’s art. Her constructed art pieces and Becky’s words show the impact of the ‘male gaze’ on women at the time. It was an era when influential men regularly exercised their power over these young women who couldn’t fight back.
The complex and precocious Zoe has had the male gaze on her since she was quite young and started her own sexual journey far ahead of Becky. She navigates the nightclub music scene with a fearlessness that Becky can only watch with awe.
Becky discusses it with her close friend, Meg, seventeen years on: ‘“We let so much slide back then.” We’re both thinking of all the times guys tooted or cat-called us from high up on building sites—always close enough to be threatening but far enough away for us not to be able to retort or claw or punch. Then there were the unwanted hands on your arse or breast.’
Becky learns the hard way how getting out of control on drink and drugs makes her vulnerable to older predatory men. Such an intense friendship as theirs must inevitably peter out, and Zoe and Becky’s relationship starts to erode as the no-boundaries Zoe goes too far for Becky.
When Zoe’s betrayal comes, Becky realises her friend is flawed, and her dependence on her for her happiness in life is unrealistic. ‘I thought I had it all figured out. I thought I had finally found a friend who cracks the world open with me, that I was starting to understand the world in some spiritual, intellectual way,’ thinks young Becky.
When Zoe puts Becky in danger, it’s the beginning of the end: ‘It wasn’t the end of our relationship, it became like rainfall on a clay cliff. One day there would be a slip.’ A tragic accident is that slip, and the friendship then implodes.
Do we become any wiser as we mature? Not if we haven’t been honest about what we’ve learned along the way is Barron’s message. Seventeen years after the friends’ dramatic parting of ways, Becky is a successful business owner and copywriter, but as the trauma of her husband’s marital betrayal sinks in, she realises there’s nothing about her current life she’s proud of.
Over the years, Becky has kept looking to recapture that light of creativity she had with Zoe in her writing work, marriage and family, and it’s never happened. It’s like someone waved a wand and the stardust disappeared. ‘For the length of our friendship, I’d been a gilded mirror frame but after what happened, the paint chipped away to reveal the plain wood of me underneath,’ says Becky.
Barron uses Becky’s best friend, Meg, who has stayed in her life, as a useful second voice, correcting or amending Becky’s interpretation of events from the mid-1990s. Meg urges her to face some of the details of that heady time so she can move on with her life now. The best mirror is an old friend, Barron writes, quoting from George Herbert.
As Zoe re-enters Becky’s life and the two old friends revisit the art they made together, the reader hears Zoe’s interpretation of events that triggered the end of the friendship, and we understand that Becky may not be the most reliable narrator. But Becky is also surprised at how proud she feels of the art they did together and how she feels about Zoe. As they come together again, their connection is still there. They are still soul-mates, and it still feels like Zoe ‘shoplifts her thoughts’, thinks Becky.
As she looks at her creativity from all those years ago, her younger self comes back to haunt her: ‘I’m dragging the old me along tonight, a reluctant shadow. I want to shake her free but I cannot. She refuses to unstick, a spiky burr on a mohair sweater. A little mouse popping up where it’s not wanted.’
This heart-rending novel ends, though, on a hopeful, optimistic note. Barron discusses what can happen when the past and its consequences are fully explored, suggesting that it can pave the way for new beginnings and a re-forming of relationships, and the making of new ones. And while you can blame the past for who you are today, it is better by far not to linger on that but to move on. Life does offer second chances.
GILL SOUTH is a journalist and business writer and regularly reviews contemporary fiction for the NZ Listener. She is the author of the non-fiction book, Because We’re Worth It: A where to from here for today’s working mothers, published by Penguin in 2009.