- Title: The Golden Age
- Author: Joan London
- Category: Literary Fiction
- Publisher: August 2014 Vintage Press/Random House Australia
Review by Angela Long for Welcome to my Library
Summary: This is a story of resilience, the irrepressible, enduring nature of love, and the fragility of life. From one of Australia’s most loved novelists. He felt like a pirate landing on an island of little maimed animals. A great wave had swept them up and dumped them here. All of them, like him, stranded, wanting to go home. 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 Hospital 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. Where children must learn that they are alone, even within their families.
Review: Set in the 1950’s, The Golden Years by Joan London is a novel of displacement and longing, where people are pulled between their need to connect and their knowledge that they are ultimately alone in the world.
The Gold family are survivors; through the ravages of war-torn Hungary, they have survived, ‘cellars, ceilings, bombing, near starvation’ and have found a new life in Australia, a new start, where their future and hopes are embodied in their son Frank. But polio doesn’t discriminate against those who have already suffered and after surviving the initial onslaught of the disease, Frank, almost thirteen, is transferred to The Golden Age children’s convalescent home to re-learn, and re-build his tortured muscles and spirit; he must learn ‘to be normal’ again. But there is always a shadow. The shadow of pain and suffering, the shadow of loss; Frank sees it in his parents and refuses to be ‘their only light’ the source of all their happiness. Inspired by another young polio victim, Frank turns to poetry to articulate his feelings. He knows in poetry he has found his vocation and his poetry is brought to life when he meets his muse Elsa Briggs. With their bodies twisted by polio, neither will have the future they dreamed of, or longed for, and it is this shared displacement that brings them together. In each other they see their sameness and become each other’s source of happiness, forming a bond that seems beyond their tender years.
Through gentle, clear prose, Joan London captures the emotions of an era in the microcosm of The Golden Age. Poetry and music is juxtaposed with the harsh Australian climate and the country that the Gold family have left is a paradox of the one they now call home.
‘Budapest was the glamorous love of his life who had betrayed him. Perth was a flat-faced, wide hipped country girl whom he’d been forced to take as a wife. Only time would tell if one day he would reach across and take her hand …’
Using the stoicism of the era; a time when loss was everywhere, the loss of loved ones, sense of place, their dreams and future; the characters accept their mutual hardships and quietly go about their business while still feeling the deep undercurrents of their emotions. Each of London’s characters are beautifully developed, full-bodied, capable of love and deceit, strength and weakness, but it is connection that each longs for. The Golden Age pulls the characters towards it, an island of hope in a time of misery, where connections are made, children become adults and adults ‘find their way back into the world.’
Although the narrative voice is primarily that of young Frank Gold, other characters are overlayed into a complex mix. The swift viewpoint changes can at times be confusing, but ultimately add to the overall structure where the internal dialogue of the individual becomes our window to their true thoughts, without a mask or the misinterpretations of others. It is here that London triumphs and we realise that no matter how much we long for connection ‘each person was alone and the world went on, no matter what was happening to you.’
In The Golden Age, as the name suggests, nothing is forever and Frank ultimately realises, ‘He would always be alone.’ ‘In the end we are all orphans.’
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Author Bio:Joan London is the author of two prize-winning collections of stories, Sister Ships, which won the Age Book of the Year in 1986, and Letter to Constantine, which won the Steele Rudd Award in 1994 and the West Australian Premier’s Award for Fiction. These stories have been published in one volume as The New Dark Age. Her first novel, Gilgamesh, was published in 2001, won the Age Book of the Year for Fiction in 2002 and was longlisted for the Orange Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her second novel, The Good Parents, was published in April 2008 and won the 2009 Christina Stead Prize for fiction in the NSW Premier’s Literary awards. Joan London’s books have all been published internationally to critical acclaim. The Golden Age (2014) is her third novel.
For more information about Joan London visit Random House Australia.
This book has been read and reviewed by Angela Long for WTML for the 2015 Australian Women Writers challenge. To read more about the challenge see their website www.australianwomenwriters.com.