Both 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.