Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 30, 2014

The Golden Age, by Joan London

The Golden AgeThere is an elegiac, melancholy tone to this novel.  It was one of those books that I looked forward to reading each night, and yet I hesitated too.  Joan London’s story-telling is both vivid and unsentimental and I feared that a character I had come to care about might not survive the pages left to read.

I think that I felt this uncharacteristic anxiety because the book is set in a polio hospital and it brought back childhood memories of other – slightly older – children that I knew who had fallen victim to polio.  As a very small child, I didn’t understand that the miracle of vaccination protected my luckier generation against the disease, and I was frightened of it.  I now know that I was not alone – Philip Roth has recently written vividly about the widespread fear of the disease in his novella Nemesis (see my review), and this excerpt from the Atlantic explains why:

It started out as a head cold. Then, the day before Halloween, 6-year-old Frankie Flood began gasping for breath. His parents rushed him to City Hospital in Syracuse, New York, where a spinal tap confirmed the diagnosis every parent feared most in 1953: poliomyelitis. He died on his way to the operating room. “Frankie could not swallow—he was literally drowning in his own secretions,” wrote his twin sister, Janice, decades later. “Dad cradled his only son as best he could while hampered by the fact that the only part of Frankie’s body that remained outside the iron lung was his head and neck.”

At a time when a single case of Ebola or enterovirus can start a national panic, it’s hard to remember the sheer scale of the polio epidemic. In the peak year of 1952, there were nearly 60,000 cases throughout America; 3,000 were fatal, and 21,000 left their victims paralyzed. In Frankie Flood’s first-grade classroom in Syracuse, New York, eight children out of 24 were hospitalized for polio over the course of a few days. Three of them died, and others, including Janice, spent years learning to walk again.  The Atlantic Oct 28th 2014

Incongruously named, The Golden Age (1949-1959) in Perth was an actual children’s polio convalescent home for what came to be the last generation of children who fell victim to this crippling and often fatal disease.   What puzzled me from the outset was why Joan London had chosen this strange name as the title for her book, and how an era fraught with the fear of this disease, could be a ‘golden age’ .

But as I read on, I began to identify the author’s nostalgia for some of the values of that era.  The characters in this novel are focussed on life and death; they deal with a dreadful situation with hope; they cherish progress towards rehabilitation. They are not materialistic: they know what really matters.  They value peace, love and as much health – including mental health – as can be salvaged.

The children deal with loss better than the adults.  Frank’s father, as you can see in the Sensational Snippet I posted earlier this week, has been able to find some pleasure in life despite the loss of everything he held dear, but his wife, a concert pianist in Hungary, remains desolate.   She reminded me of refugees I’ve read about in the media: people who have escaped horrors in their homeland only to have further disasters afflict their family here in Australia.  Fate can be unspeakably cruel.

The children are more resilient though they have no illusions:  Frank Gold and Elsa Briggs are 12-year-old patients who witness death and know that their luck is in their survival.  But they also know that their lives are irrevocably altered.

One day when her mother had taken Jane with her to the shop, Elsa went into her parents’ dark bedroom and opened the wardrobe.  On the back of the door was a long mirror.  She put the light on and saw a thin, flat-chested girl with a clunky brace on her left calf, one shoulder higher than the other, the once fluid lines of her body now distorted.  She was surprised by her eyes, their intensity.

She used to hear people say, ‘What a pretty girl.’ Now they’d say, ‘the crippled girl’ or ‘what a shame’.  (p. 220)

Frank, craving books in a book shop tells the proprietor that he intends to get a job but that right now he doesn’t have even a shilling for a layby deposit.

If he had not caught polio he would have had a job, he knew.  Selling newspapers after school, running errands, sweeping out a shop.  By now he would have been able to help his parents.  (p. 200)

Little Albert values home, and is desperate to get there. All he wanted to do was to open the front door and hear them say. ‘Allo! ‘Ere’s our Albert!’ So in the middle of the night he hauls himself into his wheelchair and rolls out through the unlocked door of the hospital …

The air was still warm.  He could hear the chirp of crickets.  He left the lights of the netting factory behind and rolled past the dark houses towards the railway line.  The wheels squeaked a little, they needed to be oiled.  When he got home he knew exactly where his brother Reggie’s oil can was.

At the railway line he turned left.  At this point, unlike the railway line, which was down in a gully, the road climbed.  Again and again Albert started off, but each time, halfway up, he was unable to reach the top.  He knew he mustn’t cry.  Suddenly his arms couldn’t do it any more.  He was so tired that he rolled off the road into the long grasses of the verge beside it.  He put on his brake, climbed out and lay down in the dry, rustling grass.  As the moon rose high in the sky he fell asleep. (p. 173)

It’s a bit hard to read what happens next without a lump in the throat.  As I said, Joan London isn’t sentimental.

This is a beautiful, inspiring book.  A tale of human courage, and love in unexpected places.  Joan London is not a prolific writer, but it’s been well worth the wait.

Shall I comment about the cover?  Yes, I shall.  It is awful.  That image is apparently Dieter on the train, Sweden, 1984.   Wrong nationality.  Wrong place.  Wrong era.  A young man of that age has no relevance whatsoever to what’s in the book.  Joan London deserves better.

There’s an illuminating interview at the SMH and Geordie Williamson reviewed it for The Australian.

Author: Joan London
Title: The Golden Age
Random House, 2014
ISBN:9781741666441
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings.

Availability

Fishpond: The Golden Age and good bookshops everywhere.


Responses

  1. I agree about the mismatched cover on Joan London’s wonderful novel “The Golden Age”. I heard a reader ask London about the choice of the cover at a session at the MWF and she said that she chose it herself. She liked the expression on the young man’s face as he looked out the window of a train carriage . But it doesn’t make sense as we really only meet Frank as an adolescent and then as a much older man. Still I didn’t let that image spoil my own impressions of the characters and the places that London creates with her exquisite writing.

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    • Hi Bernadette, nice to hear from you:)
      Well, that is a surprise, about London choosing the image herself. It just shows, I suppose that authors have other ideas about their books that don’t necessarily match up with the way that readers interpret them!

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  2. I suppose it will take quite awhile for the novel to get to the United States. London’s novel ‘Gilgamesh’ was wonderful, and I want to read this one too.

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    • Hi Tony, did The Good Parents (her second novel) make it to the US? I loved that book, it was so authentic and it really did challenge my ideas about parenting:)

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      • Hi, Lisa, yes, ‘The Good Parents’ did make it to the US. It was published in 2008 so its not surprising. Like everyone else my TBR list is 17 miles long, but I would like to read it.

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        • LOL Just imagine how unhappy we would be if we didn’t have a TBR of endless length!

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  3. […] Lisa Hill at ANZ Litlovers (It was Lisa’s Sensational Snippet that prompted me to pick up The Golden Age). […]

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  4. […] Golden Age, by Joan London (see my review and a Sensational […]

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  5. […] the judges on their choice, and with a reminder to read my review of London’s latest novel The Golden Age and a Sensational Snippet if you haven’t already had a chance to enjoy some of the finest […]

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  6. […] The Golden Age by Joan London (see my review) […]

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  7. […] Golden Age (Joan London, Vintage) See my review and a Sensational […]

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  8. […] Golden Age by Joan London (Random House Australia) (see my review and a Sensational […]

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  9. […] other takes on this novel, please see Lisa from ANZLitLovers review and the review on Orange Pekoe […]

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  10. My review of ‘The Golden Age’ is coming Sunday. I do totally agree with you about the cover. (See last line of my review). Joan London deserves better.

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    • Excellent, something to look forward to in my inbox!

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