Joan London's The Golden Age (2014) is a beautiful gem of a novel. Set in 1954 in Peth, Western Australia, at a children's polio convalescent home, The Golden Age is the residence of infants and young children who are recuperating from their illness. Days are spent learning to walk again, attending to school lessons, and a lot of time lying in bed in the heat of Perth's summer.
At 13, Frank Gold is the oldest resident and doesn't quite belong. Transferred from the local hospital's Infectious Diseases Ward, his arrival at The Golden Age is beautifully described: "He felt like a pirate landing on an island of little maimed animals. A great wave had swept them up and dumped them here. All of them, like him, stranded, wanting to go home" (p.2).
Frank is used to not fitting in. He and his family fled Hungary during the second World War and arrived in Perth. His parents Frank and Ida did not know what to make of the strange parochial outpost on the other side of the world and missed the charms and customs of their European home. But young Frank worked to fit in, catch up in school, and become increasingly Australian.
Frank is a poet and sees beauty and poetry in all things. He carries a prescription pad around in his pocket and as he wheels himself around the convalescent home he finds places to escape and moments to compose his verse. What inspires him most is Elsa, another resident, with whom he forms in intense relationship.
There are so many things I loved about this novel. London's writing style greatly reminds me of Alice Munro, my favourite short story writer. London writes in a mature voice with crisp, concise prose. Her words create a dreamy sense of nostalgia and are evocative of an earlier, simpler time.
Each chapter is almost like a short story. Through these vignettes she gives insight into the lives of nurse Sister Penny, Ida's experiences during the war, a trip with convalescing children to the sea. She captures moments in time and brings them together to create a marvellous whole.
I also loved how Australian this novel is. She depicts the landscape, the language and the culture of Australia in a way that made me want to send a copy of this book to all my Australian friends overseas.
My only quibble is with the imagery on the cover of this edition - a photo of a young man on a train. I thought perhaps this was supposed to be Frank, but he takes no train journey in this book so I don't get it. I should have asked Joan London about the cover when she signed my copy at the Sydney Writers' Festival in May. Oh well...
The Golden Age was deservedly shortlisted for numerous awards in 2015 including: The Stella Prize; The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction; The Literary Fiction Book of the Year; and, The Miles Franklin Award. It was joint winner of The NSW Premier's People's Choice Award.