The Golden Age, by Australian novelist and bookseller Joan London, takes place in a hospital for children recovering from polio in Perth in the 1950’s. That may not sound like a particularly cheerful subject and, in many ways, it isn’t. The novel covers not only the ravages of polio, but also, because it centers around a Jewish immigrant family, it discusses the ravages of war. London’s writing, however, is transcendent. What could be a bleak, mournful tale is instead a beautiful story about finding poetry in the halls of a hospital and hope in the face of despair.
The Gold family, having escaped WWII Hungary, are recent immigrants to Australia and they don’t like it much. Perth seems backwards and unsophisticated compared to Budapest. They long for their home and the days before the war. At least, that’s the experience of Meyer and Ida Gold. Frank assimilates fairly easily into his new home, until he contracts polio.
At age 13, Frank is moved from a large hospital, serving mostly recovering adults, to a smaller facility for children where he is one of the oldest patients. Throughout this experience, Frank finds his vocation, poetry, and his inspiration, Elsa. Elsa is his age and is another child adjusting to life after polio. They are away from their homes and families, now in a makeshift hospital family, and the friendship they develop is imperative to their survival.
London doesn’t overlook or gloss over the harsh reality of polio, nor is she sentimental about the WWII era or the innocence of childhood. There are iron lungs and leg braces and unused bicycles. There are dead relatives and lost opportunities and destroyed cities. The characters, which are realistic and wonderfully rendered, knock into each in the messy way life throws dissimilar people in similar situations. They cause changes in each other that are both subtle and life-changing. This is a book I read all in one sitting because I just didn’t want to stop.