Speak to anyone of school age in the fifties and they may recall hearing or chanting cruel names and running a mile from the callipers of polio survivors. London’s latest novel is a poignant and important story set in a convalescent home for victims of the disease after WWII when Australia was thronging with new arrivals and refugees from Europe.
This book is strong on place but especially on people; their inner lives and anxieties around separation and containment. London knows people, their motivations and disappointments and she knows of their resilience and ability to adapt. ‘The Golden Age’ is written in elegant and confident prose with the added bonus, to me, of it being about an aspiring poet, Frank.
‘Meyer knew Frank loved him intensely. As Ida did. As had his parents and his brothers and his one poor little sister, Roszi, and his friends, nearly all of whom, had died in the war. Wherever he went he carried their love around with him, their mysterious, unasked-for gift, like a bundle on a stick over his shoulder.
He sometimes thought he only loved properly in retrospect.
He’s often wondered whether he has a cooler temperament than others, and that was why he had survived.’
Ida and Meyer Gold are Hungarian Jews fleeing Hitler’s gas chambers, seeking a new beginning in the strange, empty city that is Perth in the fifties. They have brought their precious only son Frank with them. Themes of attachment and containment rub up against those of dislocation and freedom as in life when it is so difficult to know how much freedom is too much, how tightly should we hold and be held. These delicious notions of Melanie Klein and Winnicott infuse the story.
Whilst there is melancholy and a sense of loss when Sullivan the real poet and inspiration, loses his fragile grasp on life and where relationships and marriages are put to the test, London never sinks to the maudlin or sentimental.
In Perth, Ida, the mother has lost her core strength and has trouble connecting at any level. Her future as a concert pianist is never to be realised, and Meyer as a romantic and something of a leader is relegated to driving a truck. The only glimmer of hope is in their only child, thirteen year-old Frank in this dust bowl of a place where nobody walks after dinner, nobody sits and drinks on the verandah and where they find themselves in a dead city in need of character, habitation and love.
And then Frank is stricken with the polio virus and a lengthy stint at the convalescent home called, ‘The Golden Age’, a name typical of that era of optimism and hope over death and deprivation. The action is centred around the home which is ironically illuminated by factory lights at night, showing the city in its manufacturing heyday.
London’s style is tender and objective and does not shout for attention, but is surprising in the terrain that it covers, from rape in war to European cake-making and yet the narrative is uncluttered. There is no moral judgement, no hint of the salacious when we read of Meyer’s peccadilloes, his physical attraction to Penny and her casual encounters with other men. There is pathos in the description of Frank and Elsa trying to connect in a dimension beyond the platonic and horror when the sunny, loving atmosphere of the home, where patients are treated with kindness and compassion, is suddenly compromised and the magical spell broken.
The story is full of love in all manifestations; love of country, fellow creatures, familial love and romantic love. And while the power of the first love is a key element and could have taken over the main plot, London uses restraint in maintaining focus on sub plots and vignettes that show on the one hand our need to be free, on the other, our need for containment.
London shows the power of the survival instinct and the strength of the human spirit, the nuances that make us human both disappointingly and gloriously real. Meyer and his predilection for romance outside the marriage can be forgiven so easily.The cake that appears at Ida’s concert recital is as good as any in Vienna. The Golds and post- colonial Australia were becoming. They were forging a new way to be.
The sense of place is strong and significant but is not overwritten. We are transported to war ravaged Budapest then to the Australian desert, inhospitable and remote. Yet time allows adjustment to the most challenging situations. Humans adapt like animals to new surroundings. Nowhere is this more strikingly displayed than in the scene when the black stallion gallops out of the desert with his thirsty mares demanding a drink, and being turned away. But people are London’s primary focus.
This novel made me cry on a few occasions because London makes the characters and situations so universal and a reminder of how much we struggle for life, meaning and belonging, and of how randomly tragedy and horror can strike at the heart of a country and its people.
The Golden Age deserves the accolades. It provides an important glimpse into our relatively unexplored social history. Its subtleties demand reflection. Its unadorned, gentle rhythm and style can lull the reader into thinking that this is a simple tale. Don’t be fooled. The History syllabus would be richer for texts like this to encourage research, debate and tolerance. This is a story for our times without a skerrick of the didactic. It is a thoroughly human, glowing and golden story. I loved it.