Tag Archives: Joan London

The Golden Age by Joan London: The healing power of love

Cover imageBoth Joan London’s previous novels – Gilgamesh and The Good Parents – stand out for me as fine examples of clean, elegant writing, free of unnecessary ornament. Both also share the theme which runs through The Golden Age: the plight of the outsider, or in this case, outsiders. Frank is the thirteen-year-old son of Jewish-Hungarian parents, refugees settled in 1950s Australia. He and Elsa are patients recovering from polio in a children’s convalescent home, both of them now shunned by society. Set in the years immediately before the discovery of an effective polio vaccination, London’s novel quietly and compassionately explores the far-reaching effects of this devastating illness.

Converted from an old pub on the outer edge of suburban Perth, the Golden Age is Frank’s second rehabilitation home. He left the first shortly after the death of Sullivan, the eighteen-year-old who had shown him the way to what he is convinced is his vocation as a poet. Frank is a determined boy, zipping around the Golden Age in his wheelchair, wanting to know what’s going on and zeroing in on Elsa who, like him, is one of the oldest patients. Frank’s parents came to Australia from a refugee camp in Vienna, both scarred by the war. Elsa’s mother struggles with her strong-minded sister-in-law while her father is the one who visits Elsa. Frank and Elsa draw closer together then they are to their families, sharing confidences and coming to an understanding that their futures will not be quite as they had planned. Life at the Golden Age is lived in a bubble, the background hum of the Netting factory sending the children to sleep at night under the quietly watchful eye of Sister Penny, to be woken next morning for their rehabilitation routines. This peaceful rhythm is broken when Frank and Elsa’s relationship wanders into territory deemed inappropriate by the institution’s governors.

London’s story is told largely from Frank’s perspective, punctuated by his memories of life in wartime Budapest and his friendship with Sullivan. Her characters are beautifully observed, fleshed out with lightly yet clearly sketched detail: Frank’s father’s feelings of dislocation and loss; Nurse Penny’s compassionate care of the children and her occasional escape into sex; Ida’s struggle to keep Frank safe in Budapest and her disappointment with Australia. The writing is gracefully restrained yet often vivid: ‘Soon, in a bright swarm they would descend on the children and leave them splinted, smoothed, kissed, the curtains drawn against the dark’ beautifully describes the young nurses preparing the children for bed; ‘There was something lonely yet resolute about the way they stood there. It was not quite hope’ remembers Frank of his parents on board the ship bound for Australia. The aloneness of these children is achingly apparent as they share their ‘onset stories’, knowing that the healthy have stigmatised them and their families out of terror of being struck down themselves. London’s novel conveys the horror and sadness of this terrible illness with great humanity offering the solace of love and hope of recovery.

Books to Look Out For in August 2016: Part 2

Cover imageThe first selection of August titles I have my eye on were all about the USA. This one ranges further afield, heading south first with Clancy Martin’s Love in Central America. Brett embarks on a passionate, destructive affair with her husband’s friend which sees her slipping away for weeks with her lover and blacking out in hotels. Brett knows what she’s doing but finds it impossible to stop. Included in the publisher’s blurb is this sharp little quote – ‘Cheating on your husband is like doing cocaine… …It’s rarely a pleasure, but try quitting’ – which is enough to sell the novel to me, and that is such a stylish jacket.

Off to Spain but still in the land of relationships, Gonzalo Torné’s Divorce is in the Air sees Joan-Marc telling his estranged second wife all about his past, beginning with the breakdown of his first marriage and the holiday that was meant to save it. As the story of his life unfolds in a series of flashbacks we learn of his first sexual encounter, his father’s suicide and his mother’s breakdown. Described by the publisher as ‘an unapologetic exploration of memory, nostalgia, romance, the ways in which the past takes hold – a powerful portrait of a man struggling with his illusions about life and love’ this is the first novel by Torné to be translated in to English and sounds very promising.Cover image

Helen Sedgwick’s The Comet Seekers takes us to Antarctica where Róisín and François meet for the first time. Róisín is from an Irish hamlet, passionate about science. François was raised by his beautiful young mother, unable to turn her back on her past. Their stories unfold separately, joining only when a comet is visible in the sky. ‘Theirs are stories filled with love and hope and heartbreak, that show how strangers can be connected and ghosts can be real, and the world can be as lonely or as beautiful as the comets themselves’ say the publishers in a somewhat overblown blurb. There’s a great deal of pre-publicity hoo-ha about this one which doesn’t always bode well but both the setting and the parallel story idea appeal.

Cover imageAnd finally, on surer ground, Joan London’s The Golden Age takes us to Australia where thirteen-year-old Frank Gold’s family have escaped Second World War Hungary. Frank is sent to the eponymous hospital shortly after they arrive, diagnosed with polio. There he meets and falls in love with Elsa, scandalising the staff. Meanwhile Frank’s parents struggle with finding their way in this strange new place, so different from the country they’ve fled. ‘With tenderness and humor, The Golden Age tells a deeply moving story about illness and recovery. It is a book about learning to navigate the unfamiliar, about embracing music, poetry, death, and, most importantly, life’ say the publishers. I’ve enjoyed London’s previous novels very much so have high hopes for this one.

That’s it for August’s new novels. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with part one here it is. Paperbacks soon…