Review: The Golden Age, by Joan London
Europa, 2016. 221 pp. $17
Unlike nearly all their extended family, twelve-year-old Frank Gold and his parents survived the Holocaust in Hungary, after which they emigrated to Perth, Western Australia, in 1946. But shortly afterward, Frank comes down with polio, a cruel blow that overwhelms his mother and father, neither of whom has much capacity for warmth or emotional expression, which leaves the boy struggling to find a reason to live or to hope. He’s a cynical lad, in some ways, too clever for his own good, though what’s underneath is raw and vulnerable. But he needs an outlet for those feelings, and he’s unlikely to find one without help.
At the Golden Age, a small institution devoted to young polio victims, Frank, now almost thirteen, meets Elsa Briggs, six months younger than he. Until she was stricken, Elsa was a happy, radiant child, joyful and self-directed. Her parents are even less capable of facing their family tragedy than Frank’s, especially her father, who finds reasons to avoid Elsa. During his few visits to the Golden Age, he exhorts her to learn to walk again, already.
Meanwhile, Elsa’s mother, with younger children to care for, is too overwhelmed to do much, and she’s a doormat anyway. So Elsa, like Frank, feels abandoned, especially as she gathers that her younger siblings have taken over her belongings, her bedroom, her place in the house. Never having grappled for existence as Frank did, she’s less defended against her plight, which makes her both more innocent and yet more resolved, in her own quiet, self-enclosed way. She’s waiting for someone to understand her, though she doesn’t quite know it yet.
How these two brave, suffering kids find each other makes for a touching, beautiful story. But it’s not only a romance; I admire the way Elsa and Frank begin to realize themselves, how they unfold as the adults they will become. Which is only natural, for love would otherwise be impossible–and make no mistake, their feelings are real, not puppy love.
Being close made them stronger. They sat talking on the verandah or the back lawn. Their faces had colour. For some weeks now they’d shared the lonely task of rehabilitation, doing their exercises together. The Scottish physiotherapist commented on their rapid progress and motivation. The days were not boring, but seemed to hold at every glance something to tell the other. During the night they missed each other. Each morning was a reunion.
London’s prose is sparing and her chapters short, as is the entire book. But her vision and clarity ring out from every page, and each character has an inner life, not just the principals. I’ve rarely read a novel in which the author paid so much attention to minor figures, but you never feel as if the narrative has lost its way. On the contrary; everything fits. What’s more, the story, though more or less plotless, never flags, as each small moment takes on great significance. And the Golden Age is no Dickensian horror but a warm, sensitive, caring environment, staffed by hard-working people.
Rather, the horrors are the parents, who don’t know how to deal with their children’s illness except as a slap, a shame, a comment on themselves, which only sharpens the divide the kids feel from the outside world. By contrast, Olive Penny, the head nurse, is an intuitive, empathic soul who understands her charges and refuses to judge them. Her search for love mirror’s Frank and Elsa’s, though of course she’s coming from a vastly different perspective. She doesn’t expect much, but she’s not bitter about it–she gets that life has its limits, and there’s nothing you can do about that.
Other parallels to Frank and Elsa’s tale are those of Meyer and Ida, his parents. They struggle with their feelings of displacement from Europe, the guilt of having survived, their terror that, as so-called New Australians, they’ll be perpetual foreigners–or, in Ida’s case, her refusal to accept Australia as her permanent home. Meyer unbends more easily and, as such, can help Frank more. But in the end, Frank has his own path to follow, and, true to himself, he finds it from a fellow patient, a boy older than himself who writes poetry in his head while ensconced in an iron lung.
If I have one bone to pick with The Golden Age, it’s that London sometimes tells too much. But she also shows plenty, and with such a light hand that it’s hard to find fault. What a remarkable novel.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.