Joan London‘s quiet and moving story of children afflicted by polio, in a children’s convalescent hospital in Perth named The Golden Age, has won the 2015 Kibble award for literature, and in my opinion, deservedly so. It is a historical novel, set in the age of innocence of Perth (as echoed in the title) — blighted in the 1950s, when the dreadful epidemic of polio struck and took many young lives, and left many more crippled for life. I was a child of the 40s and 50s, but was fortunate in living in outback NSW, with little contact with other children or adults; so I escaped. I do remember, as a teenager at boarding school, taking the Salk polio vaccine on a lump of sugar; this became available in 1957. There was a children’s convalescent hospital called The Golden Age from 1949 to 1959 in Leederville, Perth. The novel is also a love story of two young teenagers, Frank and Elsa, who find in each other their twin soul, and survive with grace while they are together, but are bereft when they are expelled from the hospital for expressing their love in physical intimacy. I confess this is the first time I have read Joan London; she has been on my horizon for some years, and now I will be seeking out the rest of her books. Tegan Bennett Daylight has written a long, loving review of this book, published recently in the Sydney Review of Books. Daylight offers a resonant definition of good writing:
Perhaps the best definition of good writing is the kind that recreates this safe aloneness, this suspended awareness of the self, this being lost but at the same time attached.
Safe aloneness, she implies, following the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, is also something that children need to learn: the capacity to be alone in the presence of the mother, and beyond that, in her absence. This difficult lesson is one that all the children in The Golden Age have to learn, abruptly and yet seemingly endlessly, again and again, every day, every night, always hoping and longing to go home. Some of them do not see their parents at all; most only see them occasionally. The parents, too, are bereft — at least the loving ones are — and many of them have to battle poverty, the demands of other small children in the family, public transport and walking or begging a lift, to see their ill child. All this is conveyed in subtle and sensuous detail, without labouring the point. Above all, I find London an unobtrusive author; her characters and their world inhabit the page without the intrusive sense of an author pulling the strings that I often get with contemporary novels. At least 19th century novelists were direct and unashamed about their omniscience. Contemporary writers tend to use more indirect methods, like complex structural devices, shifting and ambiguous point of view and obscure plot shifts. More of this in my next blog, which will be about Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel.
I won’t relate the story here; Daylight’s review is a good start if you want this. What is memorable for me is the slow and subtle realisation of a microcosm, the hospital, within the macrocosm of sleepy, hot, dusty Perth. This was very real for me, partly because I lived in Perth for many years, though I went there at the end of the 70s, a couple of decades after the time of this story. But many of the sensuous qualities of this provincial city are re-awakened for me here; little glimpses of a familiar world. Here is Meyer, the Hungarian father of Frank:
Meyer stepped out of the factory into an evening so warm and light that as if by instinct he turned at once towards the river and started to walk…. He saw watermelon clouds piled up above the dark breast of the river and smelt the weedy flow of its depths. A fresh-water breeze found him and, like a puppy, licked his face and neck, breathed cool life back into him.
Frank’s parents are refugees from the Holocaust, bring their dark and bitter past with them. Frank, too, has memories of the war years, of living in hiding with an elderly mother and daughter who have given him refuge while his mother works incognito and his father is in a labour camp in the Ukraine. This is the beginning of loneliness for Frank:
It was the beginning of himself. Up until then he hadn’t really felt sad or frightened, his mother had done that for him. As long as she was there, he didn’t have to fear. He was part of her, and like a mother cat she had attended to every part of him. Now each morning, while Hedwiga was busy with Julia [her aged mother], he pissed into the chamber-pot and pulled on his own pants. He buttoned up his woollen vest and slowly, seriously, as his mother had instructed him, ran a wet comb through his hair. For a while he felt a silence in the air around him, an emptiness at his elbow. If he fell over who would pick him up? He had an impulse to crawl, in order to feel safer, but Julia told him to stand up and walk on his two feet. He did everything that Julia told him to do, as his mother had instructed.
Safety, calm, and the peace of sharing a secret world, is what he finds with Elsa. Here is Elsa’s view of their relationship, shortly before they are cast out of The Golden Age (echoes of the Garden of Eden here):
When did everything start to change? Suddenly Frank’s face had become familiar to her. Not handsome, not unhandsome, but like her own, a sort of twin, a mirror. Their connection seemed to fill the air around them. From the moment they woke up to the light glowing behind the long white curtains in their separate dormitories, they were waiting to rejoin each other.
After their fall from this state of innocence, which could only be sustained while the institution turned a blind eye to it, everything changes. The loss is greater than the original loss of wholeness and health, though there is hope of reunion. I won’t reveal the denouement and the aftermath, but I do agree with Daylight, that the ending, set 50 years later in New York, is an abrupt change that for me breaks the spell of the timeless, suspended state of the main story, tying up the loose ends in a knot that can’t be undone rather than leaving us to imagine what their lives, together or apart, were like in adulthood. The one flaw, for me, in a rare book. On the same note, I don’t like the cover design, which suggests a middle aged Frank looking back through a window; nothing to do with the structure of the narrative, the main content of it, or the ending.