Subtle in its telling, Joan London’s assured third novel appears, on the surface, to be a slight narrative of the devastating polio epidemic of the 1950s and the fate that befalls, among others, the Gold family.
Having survived the Nazi invasion of their country and beloved home city of Budapest, the surviving Golds fled to the new world and new opportunities offered by Australia and the remote city of Perth. But, just a few years later, 13 year-old Frank, the only child, contracts polio.
Learning to walk again, he is housed at The Golden Age Children’s Polio Convalescent Home, where he meets Elsa, a fellow patient. As young teenagers, they are in the eldest group of patients and they form a forbidden, passionate bond.
Frank is a fish-out-of-water. Highly intelligent, a survivor and something of a larrikin with wartime experiences most others at The Golden Age, adults and children alike, have no notion or understanding. He explores the corridors of the hospital in his wheelchair, steals cigarettes from his mother’s handbag and charms the female members of staff.
Told in the third person, The Golden Age presents events from different perspectives and points of view.
Aside from Frank, central to the evolving narrative is Meyer Gold (Frank’s father) and Sister Olive Penny, the nurse in charge of the Home. As a result, we are introduced to the social mores of 1950s Australia, those living on the edge as newcomers as well as the impact of the disease itself. The children themselves must learn that their own lives will never be the same again.
A sense of displacement pervades The Golden Age – whether it’s Frank, Ida and Meyer coming to terms with their change in life or even Olive Penny with her secrets. But Joan London does not write an angst-ridden, doom and gloom novel.
Instead, it’s surprisingly light, matter of fact and emotionally distant – as if the events are powerful enough in themselves: a beautifully accessible style of writing and use of language allows the reader to ‘read for oneself’ rather than be blinded by a lexicon of descriptive and emotive vocabulary.
It does, however, come across as slight and lacking in any real substance. Comparing Old World Europe with the new – and provincial Perth in the 1950s in particular – is well told. But there needed to be more edge to the storyline of the children fighting the disease. Whilst not calling on the need to dwell, the time was one of pain, struggle and isolation.
Yet that aside, my major criticism of an otherwise eminently readable book is the last chapter. A tying up of loose ends is not necessary – and in its brevity, diminishes the importance of characters central to events at the Home in the 1950s.
The Golden Age was shortlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award (Joan London’s second – her first novel, Gilgamesh, was also nominated in 2002) but lost out to Sofie Laguna and her The Eye of the Sheep. London did, however, collect the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction for The Golden Age.