‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London – Why We Read Novels

 

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London   (2014) – 221 pages

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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.)

 

Grade:   A 

 

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15 responses to this post.

  1. LOL yes, covers, I mean, did the designer read the book?
    But seriously, yes, The Golden Age is a wonderful book with some truly memorable moments. That little boy, suddenly desperate to go home, who simply leaves the hospital at night in his wheelchair, and struggles up the hill to get there. There is so much encapsulated in that little episode: a lost world of innocence where a hospital could leave its doors unlocked like that, for a start. Australia was still like that even in the 1960s, people did not lock their doors, and there was no fear of bad things happening… the irony London is pointing to is that the real danger to their happiness was a germ.
    And then there is the compelling power of home, and the stolid gutsy determination of that child, alone in the middle of the night, in the dark, on a road. So much initiative, when today children are taught to be afraid of everything and stay indoors and only play in a sanitised backyard.
    I just loved this book.

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    • Hi Lisa,
      I remember as a kid my parents never locked the house on our farm when we left home. I do remember that in high school there was one girl a year older than me who had had polio but I also remember a nurse coming around to our grade school with the polio vaccine, and all of us getting a shot.
      ‘The Golden Age’ is certainly an uplifting novel, but there is a literary quality to the writing that places it above most heartwarming uplifting stuff. I was also impressed with Joan London’s Gilgamesh because of the quality of the writing. She fits in with her Australian forebearers.

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      • Yes, she’s just wonderful. I liked The Good Parents too. It’s a shame her books come so few and far between, but that’s the price we pay for great writing, I suppose.

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        • At some point I would like to go back and read ‘The Good Parents’. I believe London also had a couple of short story collections before that which never made it to the United States.

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          • I don’t know about the short stories…

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            • I found it in Wikipedia: “London is the author of two collections of stories. The first, Sister Ships, won The Age Book of the Year (1986), and the second, Letter to Constantine, won the Steele Rudd Award and the West Australian Premier’s Award for Fiction (both in 1994). The two were published together as The New Dark Age.[2] She has published three novels, Gilgamesh, The Good Parents and The Golden Age.”

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              • There must be someone with a really good research base contributing to WP for Aussie writers… it used to be that there was nothing there, and when I tried adding some pages some WikiNazi deleted my stuff because he said the authors weren’t ‘notable enough’. He meant that notable in Australia doesn’t count as notable in the US. I gave up after that.

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              • Good phrase, WikiNazi.

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              • I’m apparently not the only one who’s given up in dismay. I read somewhere not so long ago that WP now has the problem that everyone expects it to have up-to-date and comprehensive info, and there are not enough people contributing info and articles. They say this is especially true for women, but I also suspect that it’s true too for people who are sick of having the US and UK PoV dominate everything. If you look at the entry for LitBlogs, for example, you’ll find plenty of US and UK ones there, but (last time I bothered to look) you won’t find one from Australia. As if no one is doing LitBlogs here….

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  2. I too loved this book. You made a great point about the freedom of the characters to be unique or independent and I agree that is common in Australian literature. I loved the warmth of Meyer and his sunny disposition in contrast to Ida. And then Ida has her moment when we learn her inner thoughts as she plays the piano for the hospital. When I mentioned the subject of the book to a friend, I learned that the nearby town where she grew up was the hardest hit in the nation by the epidemic and she was born a few months after the death of her brother from polio. A link to what she wrote about that summer is in my post about the book.

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    • Hi Charlotte,
      Someone, I can’t remember who, gave as fiction writing advice, “Write it Slant”, and Joan London surely does that. If we don’t all feel as intensely as others, that’s OK. And some of our coping techniques might not stand up to what the authorities prescribe, that’s OK too. We are all different, and that is a good thing. That is something that comes across in writers like Patrick White and Henry Handel Richardson and Murray Bail as well as several other Australian writers I forgot to mention.
      I remember the polio vaccine coming around to our grade school about 1955 or 1956. I know they rushed it out because polio was such a horrible disease.

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  3. At your mention of Henry Handel Richardson I thought of the reflections of Mahoney in Australia Felix when he reproaches himself for his insensitive respond to a minor character. I do love that Australian writers so often give us complex characters. And there’s Richard Flanagan’s Dorrigo Evans in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, whose inner conflict is so beautifully revealed.

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  4. It must be good! You’re a strict grader.
    I’m not familiar with her work at all but shall keep an eye out for it.

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