The Golden Age, Joan London’s third novel, is a gem. Like her two previous, highly acclaimed novels Gilgamesh (2001) and The Good Parents (2009), The Golden Age kept me riveted to the page from start to finish.
This novel is set mostly in post-war Perth in 1954. The story centres on the Golden Age Children’s Polio Convalescent Home. The fourteen young residents who live there have each been nursed in isolation wards in hospital during the acute phase of poliomyelitis. Now they must learn to walk again and to become as independent as possible. Unable to return to their families for a variety of reasons, they form strong, almost familial bonds with each other and with the staff who care for them. They share stories about the onset of their illness.
At the heart of the novel is the growing, forbidden friendship between Frank and Elsa, the two oldest children in the Home. An aspiring poet, Frank is the son of Hungarian refugees. both of whom are in the workforce. The mother of self-possessed Elsa is too busy looking after her large family and Elsa’s baby sister to provide the care her oldest daughter needs.
In Joan London’s deft hands, this beautifully crafted novel unfolds in a series of short chapters and vignettes. She moves easily from one person’s story to another to build a bigger picture of life in Perth at that time.
There is nothing sentimental in this novel, although it tells of disjointed and disrupted lives, those of bereft children and their parents. Joan London manages to convey the sense of great loss which permeates her characters without mawkishness. She shows them as they begin to adjust, even accept, the devastation caused by the scourge of poliomyelitis:
In the calm water [Elsa] stood unsure and couldn’t let go of Norm’s arm. This was a shock. She who used to love the wild seas best, fighting the waves, picking herself up if she were dumped. Then riding home wet, downhill, without putting on the brakes.
‘The certain knowledge came to her during rest-time that whatever her achievements in the future, she would never again ride a bike around the river to Perth, or stand up to the dumpers on a windy day.
I empathised with the children who had been removed from their families because of illness, and who had had to learn to live independently. It was hard not to anguish for the parents who had had their children wrested from them by a terrible infectious disease. I admired the charge nurse, Sister Penny, with her intensively private life and her compassion for the children in her care, and the other staff.
The Golden Age is a microcosm of the world outside the hostel. Joan London manages to capture the elements of both. She reflects the facets of each against the other.
The Golden Age Home existed in real life as an annexe of the Princess Margaret Hospital for Children. Formerly a hotel, it was purchased by the WA Health Department during one of the poliomyelitis epidemics which struck Western Australia (and many other parts of the world) between 1948 and 1956.
Perhaps another reason for my liking this novel so much is that it is set mostly in North Perth, close to where I grew up. The novel reminds me of the places and scenes of my childhood, and especially of the freedom that was lost when children contracted polio. A Western Australian herself, Joan London seems very at home in this world.
I highly recommend The Golden Age.
The Golden Age
Imprint: Vintage Australia
This is my first review of a book by an Australian woman for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.