Joan London, The Golden Age (Random House 2014)
There are any number of ways a novel about children with polio could go wrong. There’s sicksploitation, in which the children are reduced to pity objects, their carers to embodiments of a heartless or incompetent medical system, and their parents to hand-wringing bystanders. There’s documentation, in which treatment is described in painful detail, and criticised in the light of what is now known to be effective. There’s advocacy, in which a longish final sequence shows the children, now in their sixties, dealing with post polio syndrome. And I’m sure there are others. Joan London avoids them all in The Golden Age.
When the book opens Frank/Ferenc, a thirteen year old boy, son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, has newly arrived in a polio convalescent home named The Golden Age (a home of that name actually existed in Perth in the 1950s, and the novel draws on the reminiscences of people who were patients there). Frank has already decided his vocation is to be a poet, and he is drawn to Elsa, another patient about his own age. His growing love for Elsa and his development as a poet, both treated with respectful restraint, are delicately intertwined with the story of their rehabilitation and provide the novel’s central narrative thread.
In the other characters, especially Frank’s parents and Sister Olive Penny, the nurse in charge of the home, the moral and emotional world of post-war Perth is brought to life with apparent effortlessness. Even the sketchiest of characters – the gardener, say, or the ex-patient with whom Olive has an unconventional relationship, or the people who live across the road from the Golden Age – are deeply imagined. Big scenes – a piano concert in the quadrangle, the queens’ visit to Perth – unfold naturally and without ever losing sight of the main game.
For me, the emotional heart of the book lies in the relationships between the young people and their parents. Different parents’ emotional reactions to their children’s illness are deftly captured, ranging from scenes of operatic intensity to tiny, deeply intimate gestures. Anyone who has been in hospital or boarding school as a child will recognise the children’s ambivalence about their parents’ visits, as the institution comes to feel more like their real home and they realise that their parents don’t understand their new lives. The final major turning point, which I’m not going to reveal, emerges from the middle of this complexity as a surprise that is also, in the Nero Wolfe sense of the phrase, most satisfactory.
This is the second book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.