Book Review: The Golden Age by Joan London
In the middle of Joan London's latest novel, Meyer Gold ironically wonders to himself if there is a poet living in the eponymous polio hospital in Leederville, never realising that there is in fact a poet, and it happens to be Meyer's son Frank (or Ferenc in his native Hungarian.) Poetry becomes a central theme in the novel as it does in young Frank Gold's life; the quest for that illusive final line is a metaphor for a sort of quest for meaning in the life of a young person who has made his way by surviving horrors, first under the Nazis, where as a Jewish person he was forced to hide in the roof above the home of a moribund piano teacher and then in his new home of Perth, where he contracts polio and must learn to walk again. The novel is not, as one might suspect, the harrowing journey to Frank's recovery from illness, but rather his life despite it and because of it. His foray into The Golden Age hospital has ripple affects across his life and across the lives of those he meets.
This is not a novel which is heavy in plot; in fact were we to focus on the plot it would be a rather short book indeed. The book begins with Frank stealing out of his room to go and look for Elsa, the object of his affections. He then recounts a little of what Hungary was like for him, and the sense of purpose he found upon meeting a young poet named Sullivan in the infectious diseases branch of Royal Perth. Sullivan is confined to an iron lung, but spends his time composing poetry for a collection which he calls On My Last Day on Earth. He dies before it can ever be finished, and Frank, who was his pupil and scribe, takes up the gauntlet. As a fellow sufferer, Frank notes that this is Sullivan's important work, whereas Sullivan's father (who is an outsider to the special world of the polio sufferer, an almost exclusive community of outsiders) believes that Sullivan's best work is what he wrote before he was sick, about the trivial pastimes of sailing and tennis. This is the 50s, and the shame of having your son struck down with polio in his prime is never stated, but always felt. It is felt also by Elsa, who was clearly the favourite of her parents, and treated to bicycles and tennis lessons. Elsa is from a privileged sect of society, from what is now known as the Western Suburbs. Ordinarily she never would have met Frank Gold, but when she contracts polio, she too is sliced out of the world. They share a sensibility, a way of seeing the world, and become close quickly.
Of the other characters, the nurses, the parents, Elsa's mother who feels her place being usurped by her sister in law, who seems to have Elsa's father under her thumb, we see their lives as we see other planets orbiting the sun. Their actions add colour and flavour to the narrative but there is no urgency in their journeys, and often-times there is no resolution... although it is satisfying when Elsa's mother Margaret finally stands up to her sister in law Nance. But while the possibility of an affair between Meyer Gold and Sister Olive Penny is hinted at, nothing eventuates; while Ida Gold is invited to enter the upper classes because of her skilled piano playing, she refuses; and in a way, the outside world stays as it has always been. It is Frank and Elsa who change; they change each other, and while their love cannot last outside The Golden Age, their friendship buoys them over the years. In a way, it seems as if everything Frank does from that day is because of Elsa.
I gave this novel 3 and a 1/2 stars.