The Golden Age

Joan London

The Golden Age
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The Golden Age

Joan London

Winner of the Kibble Literary Award 2015

It is 1954 and thirteen-year-old Frank Gold, refugee from wartime Hungary, is learning to walk again after contracting polio in Australia. At the Golden Age Children’s Polio Convalescent Home in Perth, he sees Elsa, a fellow patient, and they form a forbidden, passionate bond. The Golden Age becomes the little world that reflects the larger one, where everything occurs: love and desire, music, death, and poetry. It is a place where children must learn they’re alone, even within their families.

Written in Joan London’s customary clear-eyed prose, The Golden Age evokes a time past and a yearning for deep connection. It is a rare and precious gem of a book from one of Australia’s finest novelists.

Review

In 1950s Perth, Frank Gold lies awake in his bed in the boys’ ward of the Golden Age Children’s Polio Convalescent Hospital. He is thinking about Elsa, a fellow-patient. Across the road the netting factory hums, its lights shining through the hot dry night, like the green beacon at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock.

New Australians in a new suburb, Ida and Meyer Gold drink brandy on their front porch, smoke billowing from their cigarettes. They think about Budapest, about Lake Balaton, their old lives and their incongruous new home. In the isolated esert town, the arcane grandeur of Europe feels a world away. They think about Ferenc, now called Frank. The Golds don’t know that their son, their hope, has found his vocation: he is a poet. Frank has found an internal strength, and Elsa, his muse, fuels his young passion.

Joan London doesn’t distract with poetics – her prose is clear and direct with attention focused on character and plot. Frank’s narrative is fashioned by the perspectives of numerous characters in various contexts: from Pest to Buda, to Vienna and later Perth; from the iron lung-imprisoned Sullivan Backhouse; to the motley crew of Golden Age inmates; the fresh-faced overseer, Nurse Penny; and the girl of the moment, and all others, Elsa Briggs.

With The Golden Age, London offers us a story at once specific and universal: first love. Frank and Elsa find themselves united in a world removed from all others, knowing the other as they know themselves, but somehow more intimately. As readers, we don’t imagine the pair could remain together forever, but we understand the profound impact that such a relationship will have on them. The Golden Age grows on you, warming up like a coming summer, refreshing as an ocean swim.


Sophie Shanahan is a freelance reviewer.

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