‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London
Vintage Australia; $32.99
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Joan London’s third novel, The Golden Age, is about the love between Frank and Elsa, two polio-stricken children at a rehabilitation facility in suburban Perth in the early 1950s. Frank, or Ferenc, is a Hungarian refugee who makes the connection between illness and his time as a fugitive hiding in a ceiling in war-ravaged Budapest: “he could still sense that time in the ceiling somewhere deep in his body … He felt it as the weak spot, the broken part, the gap that had let polio in.” Australia, his place of refuge, has become a place of suffering.
Peace did not offer respite from suffering in the 20th century. In the year that World War One ended, Spanish flu killed immense numbers of soldiers and civilians; the incidence of polio, which often targets children, burgeoned after World War Two (and is currently rising in Pakistan). For many, wartime losses and displacement were followed by the sorrow and horror of disease.
Joan London understands the way that fear and suffering can merge in the mind so that war seems to create physical vulnerability in survivors, but she also understands the swift merging of joy, love, and the light and atmosphere of the hot remote city where Frank’s parents make their home.
Although the setting may seem grim – the Golden Age is the name of the hospital where Frank and Elsa’s love story takes place – this novel is a brilliant display of life and change: the transition between war and peace, between love and permission, between terrible paralysis of various kinds and movement. It is a celebration of poetry, because Frank shifts his observations into fine spare verse. Frank and Elsa, like the other stricken children in the Golden Age, accept the hard lessons of self-reliance and enforced solitude. They are infantilised, “splinted, smoothed, kissed, the curtains drawn against the dark”, but they are thoughtful, observant and adult. When Frank misses his parents he feels “nostalgia” – he has changed, and childhood is behind him. Elsa learns self-sufficiency: “Feeling held you back … Polio had taken her legs, made her pale with thin cheeks, and yet, somehow, herself.”
The author and critic Andrew Riemer, in his account of emigrating from Budapest to Sydney in 1947 at around the same time as Frank’s family arrive in Perth, writes of the immediate emotional stasis of arrival: “Journey’s end is boredom, frustration and anxiety.” Riemer describes the disappointment, the “flatness”, of a destination, even for the contemporary traveller. Joan London shows the possible aftermath of this: how the ordinary can lift people who have experienced great suffering into free lives.
Brenda Walker is an Australian writer and a Winthrop Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her memoir, Reading by Moonlight, was published in 2010.