Fiction – paperback; Vintage Australia; 256 pages; 2015.
It seems remarkable that poliomyelitis (otherwise known as polio or infantile paralysis), which has almost been eradicated from the world thanks to the development of a vaccine in the 1950s, was so prevalent just a few generations ago. In the 20th century there were major outbreaks of this incurable infectious disease, which caused paralysis in infants and children, in Europe, the USA and Australia.
One of those outbreaks was in Perth, Western Australia, in the early 1950s. The outbreak was so bad — one newspaper report from 6 March 1954 claims “there were 15 cases in January, 80 in February and 40 for the first five days of March” — that an impending visit by The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh had to be seriously curtailed.
That outbreak — and the Royal Tour of Western Australia — feature in Joan London‘s most recent novel, The Golden Age, which takes its name from an actual children’s convalescent home, which existed in Leederville, a suburb of Perth, from 1949-1959.
In this home we meet a varied cast of characters including Frank Gold, a 13-year-old Jewish refugee from wartime Hungary, and his parents Ida and Meyer; Elsa, a 13-year-old patient, and her anxious guilt-ridden mother Margaret; and Sister Olive Penny, a nurse and war widow with a teenage daughter of her own.
Stigma of the disease
There’s not much of a plot; the book works as a series of vignettes, which provide a glimpse of what it was like to contract polio and to live and work in The Golden Age, including how the home and its patients were viewed by the outside world. London taps into a rich vein of parental guilt associated with the disease and the stigma that was attached to it:
It had been hot like this nine months ago, when she’d come home at midday one Saturday from shopping in the city and seen the ambulance in their driveway. From that time on, her body had been in the grip of something, heavy as a stone in her belly, pulling down her mouth and neck and shoulders. Sometimes the garden was the only place where she could breathe. Night after night when Elsa was in Isolation, she paced up and down the little stretch of grass.
Nance had driven over with a casserole and questioned Margaret about hygiene. Did she let her girls use public conveniences? Did she check if they washed their hands? Margaret opened her mouth and screamed.
It also builds up a picture of a certain period in Australia’s post-war history, including what it was like to be a refugee in a far-flung corner of the world, remote from your own culture and family connections — even though those connections might have perished in the war. Indeed, through the Gold family, London encapsulates that dichotomy of wanting to be free and to live in safety, yet finding out the hard way that other hidden dangers — such as illness — still lurk.
She and Meyer had wanted to go to America. They waited for months in Vienna to hear from a cousin of Meyer’s father who’d migrated to New York in his youth. Finally, at the end of ’46, a sponsorship was offered from Western Australia. In Vienna they were living in a dormitory with only a curtain between them and fifty other people. So they accepted. When at last they landed in Fremantle, Ida wanted to get straight back onto the ship.
Every day, Ida found something that proved their voyage had been ill-fated. If she missed a bus, it was because they should never have come here. […] But here they were in a free, democratic country, and they were gutted, feeble, shellshocked. Frank had been a resilient little fellow, he’d survived cellars, ceilings, bombing, near starvation. Then they came here.
Admittedly, as much as I enjoyed this book — the beautiful, languid prose, not dissimilar to that of London’s compatriot Gail Jones, the well-drawn characters behaving in all-too human ways, and the melancholy atmosphere the story evokes — but I never fully engaged with the narrative. The blurb suggests the book hinges on a love story between Frank and Elsa, and while that is part of the story, it’s not the heart and soul of it; it’s merely an interlude to show the passing of time and the patients’ need for companionship and love.
If anything, the book is an extremely good snapshot of a certain time and place peopled by characters from all walks of life who are brought down by a terrible disease. It’s wonderfully evocative and often moving, but felt lacking in some subtle way I can’t quite put my finger on (though, I suspect it’s because the story flits backwards and forwards between too many characters so that you never really get caught up in their lives enough to care about what happens to them).
Yet, for all that, The Golden Age has been showered with award nominations and prizes. It won the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, the 2015 Queensland Literary Award for Fiction, the 2015 NSW Premier’s People’s Choice Award (joint winner) and the 2015 Kibble Literary Award. It was shortlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Stella Prize, ALS Gold Medal, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, the Asher Literary Award and the Australian Book Industry Awards Literary Fiction Book of the Year.
The author, who has just three novels to her name (I’ve only reviewed The Good Parents), also won the 2015 Patrick White Award for a lifetime of outstanding contribution to Australian literature and last October was named a State Living Treasure by the WA government.
The Golden Age is published in Australia by Vintage Australia. It will be published in the UK and USA by Europa in August 2016.