Review: The Golden Age by Joan London

Australian author Joan London’s fine new novel, The Golden Age, is based on a true story – sort of. In the 1950s, a pub in Perth called The Golden Age was converted into a children’s Polio convalescent home. From the outside “it still looked like a country pub....the very plainness and familiarity of its exterior seemed to proclaim its function, to give fair shelter and homely comfort. A watering hole.”

Using this truth as inspiration, London crafts a remarkable coming-of-age novel exploring one boy’s transition from adolescence to adulthood and from sickness to health. Heartfelt but not sentimental, historical but not overly factual, The Golden Age is the latest triumph from an already triumphant author.

After surviving WWII Frank (Ferenc) Gold and his parents move from Hungry to Perth, where Frank contracts Polio and thus meets two people who will change the direction of his life: Sullivan, a middle-aged poet dying in an Iron Lung, and Elsa, a quiet, beautiful girl who becomes his first love.  Frank’s awakening as a poet, coupled with his muse, gives him a dogged inner strength to persevere when faced with “the lonely task of rehabilitation.” Writing gives him purpose, a future: “He could overcome any hardship because he had a vocation.”  

And while Frank’s transition is powerful, what makes The Golden Age so remarkable is London’s particular care of the surrounding cast. Each character, no matter how small their role, is fully, heartbreakingly realized, from Frank’s mother Ida, a renowned pianist who gives up her music when Frank becomes ill; to his father, Meyer, who strives to maintain his strength and optimism in a foreign land; to Elsa’s mother, whose household demands make her feel “as if her life were…a heavy ship she struggled to keep on course.”

Told in a series of short chapters that focus on different characters, London writes with the efficiency and power of a poet herself, detailing complex family histories and hardships in single paragraphs. Numerous passages are so powerful they demand to be read aloud.

London is honest about the horrors of war, the cruelty of Polio, the challenges of immigration. But she is also honest about the very real sense of hope that buoys individuals on to face another day. That no matter how small a life or a moment might be, it has “its own nature, its own mysterious significance,” making The Golden Age, above all else, a story of perseverance.