It’s been a couple of months since I finished Joan London’s third novel, ‘The Golden Age‘, but I’m behind with my reviews because I’ve been concentrating on revising my own novel!
I absolutely loved Gilgamesh, also written by this author, so I was looking forward to a good read. Since its launch, ‘The Golden Age’ has appeared on the long- or shortlist of nearly every literature prize in Australia: the Stella Prize, the Miles Franklin Award, the Kibble Award, the ALS Gold Medal Award, and I’ve probably omitted a few.
As a child, I heard the stories of the children ‘crippled’ by polio, always told in pitying tones. I remember the smiling faces of the children in photos, which seemed incongruous with their calipers and crutches and iron lungs.
My Year One teacher, Sister Ambrose, had polio as a child.
‘Haven’t you noticed her calipers and limp?’ my mother asked.
No, I hadn’t. She seemed quite sprightly to me, aged six, but after that, I looked for them under her black habit, catching an occasional glimpse if she bent over or turned around too fast.
My grandmother also told me about the ‘Infantile Paralysis’, as she called it, that broke out in Launceston when she was fifteen. At the time, she had a job looking after children but the children’s mother took the family to the coast to avoid the disease, so she lost her job. My grandmother then got a job at the Launceston General Hospital, but someone discovered she was only fifteen and she had to quit because of the risk of polio.
(My grandmother’s tale is another story in itself—imagine packing up your family and moving to the coast to avoid a disease, or getting work as a fifteen-year-old in a public hospital without anyone asking your age …)
Getting back to Joan London’s book: ‘The Golden Age’ is set in Perth during the polio outbreak in the 1950s, not long before Jonas Salk discovered a vaccine. The book centres around the inhabitants of ‘The Golden Age’, which was an actual convalescent home for children who’d had polio. The children lived there while they had therapy and learned skills to cope with their new life.
The novel is a love story between two (fictional) children who live in the home—Frank Gold and Elsa Briggs. They suffer the effects of polio, but they’re otherwise normal kids on the cusp of adolescence, experiencing all the awakenings of that age.
Frank’s parents, Meyer and Ida, are Jewish immigrants who escaped Hungary and post-WWII Europe for a fresh start in Australia.
‘Nobody here could imagine the waters of the Swan running red. The Causeway bombed, tanks rolling up St Georges Terrace. Block after block of empty buildings, blackened and broken like ruined teeth. Shots ringing out. The hunted running through Kings Park. Bodies piled ten high on the steps of Parliament House.’
However, their hopes are dashed when Frank is struck with polio. Meyer copes by walking the streets of Perth until he finds internal acceptance, but Ida, who was a concert pianist in Budapest, has a harder time.
Frank falls in love with Elsa, the eldest and the most beautiful child in her large family:
‘From the moment she was put in Margaret’s arms, it was as if the stars came out. She knew at once this child was special. So graceful and dignified that people seemed to bow before her in her pram! This was the best thing that had ever happened to Margaret. The turning point. Her life had at last been made right.’
As soon as Frank sees Elsa, he is captivated:
‘She looked like a drawing done with a fine lead pencil. He noted the straightness of her nose, her delicate, grave mouth, the clear curve of her jaw line, the length of her neck from the bottom of her earlobe to the hollow of her throat. There was a shadow between her eye and cheekbone. An aristocrat. Her hands lay in her lap. She was exhausted.
Elsa, he said to himself in the doorway.’
There are other characters: Sister Olive Penny, who cares for the children and tries to make them happy; and Sullivan, dear Sullivan, the promising rower struck down with polio during the Head of the River, who lives in an iron lung and dreams up poetry.
‘Once you get used to your condition, he said, your imagination becomes free again.’
I loved this book: the story, the prose, the characters. It’s not a long read, is simply written, and it’s beautiful. It takes what could have been a sad tale, and turns it into an uplifting story about the resilience of children. It’s about children leading their parents and showing them how to find happiness, even in adversity. It’s about being happy even after being stricken with a debilitating and frightening illness. It’s about accepting whatever life delivers—war or illness—and still finding moments of joy. It’s about anyone, no matter what their affliction, still being able to live a fulfilling life.
As I said earlier, I’m a bit behind in my reviews and this is only my second review for the AWW Challenge 2015—better get a move on! I recently read ‘The Break’ by Deb Fitzpatrick, which was an absolute gem of a novel, so I’ll write a review of that soon.