‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London (2014) – 221 pages
I have often thought about why people read novels or, more in particular, why do I read novels. I came up with the following reason. Reading a really good novel can be transformative for me just like a few of the people that I have met during my lifetime who have changed me. ‘The Golden Age’ is one of those really good novels which had this profound effect on me. Why I feel such a need to transform myself is another question.
Joan London is a transcendent old-fashioned novelist, and that is a glorious thing. She writes about people being heroic in desolate circumstances. Take the following lines about the nurse Lidja who works at the children’s polio hospital called The Golden Age:
“Everyone knew that Lidja would not give up on you. She bent their fingers and wrists, twisted their torsos, stretched their legs, brought their heads down to their ribs. They learned not to whimper or to complain. She presided over their momentous occasions – the first time they stood alone, the first step they took.
The reward was Lidja’s smile and the way she said their name. She made them feel like athletes training for a race. They must fight, they must never give up, they were going to win!”
The novel is mainly the story of the Golden Age makeshift hospital, its staff, and the child polio patients.
Thanks to doctors Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin I missed the terrible epidemics of polio by a few years. In ‘The Golden Age’ the Gold family somehow escaped the Holocaust in their hometown of Budapest and migrated to Australia, only to have their only child Frank come down with polio six years later. Frank is a rather precocious 13 year-old, and soon he falls in love with 12 year-old Elsa, another polio patient.
One admirable quality I find in Joan London as well as in several other Australian fiction writers is that she does not confine her characters to little tightly defined compartments where their every word or action can be guessed ahead of time. Instead she allows all of her characters the freedom to be eccentric or unique or different from the others as they see fit. Thus we get a novel of several unique independent people interacting with each other with sometimes unexpected results. This is true for the patients at the hospital as well as the staff and the parents. I find Australian novels in general more unpredictable than others, and that is a positive trait.
‘The Golden Age’ is a fine traditional heroic novel. The characters in the novel not only persevere despite bleak conditions, they triumph.
(However I do have a complaint about the cover. In the cover I did not use, the boy is at least sixteen, and Frank in the book is only thirteen. The cover I’m using isn’t great, but it is not so bad.)