2014, 156 p.
I don’t know how Joan London managed it, but by only page 32 into this book, my eyes were brimming with tears. It was a feeling that stayed with me right until I turned the last page – a deep sadness that not once threatened to tip into sentimentality.
The (real life) Golden Age was a former hotel in suburban Perth during the 1950s. At a time before the Salk vaccine put an end to the fear of polio, rehabilitation hospitals were established for children affected by polio. The door stayed open all night and parents were welcomed but many – fearful, distressed and bound to work and their other children- came only at set times, or barely at all. They were frightened by the illness and the future for their hurt, sick, too-aware children.
Thirteen year old Frank is almost too old for this children’s home but too young for adult hospitals. He is the only child of Jewish Holocaust survivors, cultivated educated Middle European migrants who have already lost so much, finding their way in a new country. He falls in love with the frail, thin, Elsa who tumbles from her harried family into the quiet world of the Golden Age.
The horrific scenario of young bodies stilled, weakened and contorted by polio is lulled into a quiet, soothing, muffled presence. This is a serene book, told in very short chapters like snapshots. They are laid out before us, intersecting each other: gentle, soothing middle-aged Sister Penny who takes lovers when she can; Albert Sutton who runs away; the older boy Sullivan, an accomplished athlete and poet who dies in an iron lung; and Frank’s own parents, his father a successful Budapest businessman now driving soft drink trucks and his mother the angry, coiled-tight concert pianist who plays a twilight concert in the yard of the Golden Age with the factory lights blazing next door. The thread that connects them is Frank and Elsa, shyly negotiating new feelings.
This book reminded me of two other books: Atonement by Ian McEwan and The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley. Both those books are suffused with summer heat and bathed in regret and nostalgia. So too is The Golden Age. It is a beautifully crafted book, quiet, confident and sad. It’s very good.
I really must tally up my books for the Australian Women Writers challenge.