An Australian Find

The Golden Age     Joan London     (2014)

I have woefully neglected Australian fiction. Before I happened on The Golden Age, the last Australian novel I’d read was Colleen McCullough’s 1977 melodramatic saga The Thorn Birds, which shouldn’t even count, because it was made into a television mini-series.

Joan London’s poignant novel The Golden Age gains its power from insightful characterizations and an unusual setting. In 1953, as polio ravages the lives of children and young adults around the world, two afflicted adolescents (Frank Gold and Elsa Briggs) meet in a polio rehabilitation center in Perth, Western Australia.

The repurposed building retains the name it had when it was a pub: The Golden Age. The author tells us in a special note that this was the name of an actual children’s polio convalescent home in the 1950s. For me, The Golden Age conjures up many appropriate images. The young patients are like ancient, wise souls—in their “golden years”—because of the life-threatening illness that they’ve survived. Frank and Elsa have a golden opportunity for friendship and love, having been placed in this rehabilitation center even though they’re both older than the other residents. The light in Perth—known for its sunny climate—has a gilded quality that London renders strikingly in descriptive passages.

London anchors her story in real-life events of the period, including the visit of the young Queen Elizabeth II to Perth in 1954. The narrative also includes powerful flashbacks to Budapest during World War II, where Frank and his parents barely survived the Holocaust before emigrating as refugees to Australia in 1947.

But the interior lives of Frank and Elsa, of their parents, and of the head nurse at The Golden Age are the heart of the novel. Here is Frank’s father, Meyer, describing his life as a refugee:

“It was like this. 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 . . .” (92)

The characters in Frank and Elsa’s love story and in the interconnected sub-plots are genuine, flawed, struggling people. The thirteen-year-old Frank’s thoughts as he falls in love with Elsa build through the novel and ring true. He decides that he is a poet, and this vocation does not seem incongruous for him. He and Elsa scandalize their elders because of their youth, but, hey, Shakespeare’s Juliet was thirteen, and Romeo was probably not much older.

On a practical note, the Australian variants of English are not too intrusive for an American reader. I did look up “brumbies” (free-roaming feral horses), “ute” (utility vehicle), “chooks” (chickens), and “dunny” (outhouse), but context supplied enough meaning even in these cases. At first I was irritated by London’s frequent use of sentence fragments, which give a jerky, rough feel to some of her paragraphs. A few chapters in, however, I began to see this style as perhaps reflecting the erratic, lurching gait of the recovering polio patients, who are portrayed tenderly but with no mawkishness. Or perhaps the fragments express the tentativeness of many of the characters—those who don’t know what to say to polio patients, those who are refugees in a foreign land, those who have been hurt by love.

The Golden Age won several awards in Australia, including The Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction. It deserves more international attention.