I’m not usually one for old fashioned stories. I’m not a big fan of Austen or the Brontes. I want books to take me to another place, but I also want to connect with it. The characters and the setting need to feel relatable, the phrasing needs to feel contemporary. I want room to breathe within the story and often I feel stifled by older works. I can’t put my finger on why this is the case, but it means that for the most part I’m drawn to books set in a time and place I can imagine. So I’m not sure why I picked up The Golden Age - a story set amongst a polio outbreak in the 1950’s - but I am very glad I did.
The Golden Age tells the story of Frank Gold, the only son in a family of Hungarian refugees who have recently arrived in Perth after the war. But just as Frank wins a scholarship to a prestigious local school, fulfilling the migrant fairytale of mastering the language and making a better life for himself, he is struck with polio and undergoes intensive treatment, first at a local hospital, and then at the treatment centre The Golden Age. The facility houses children suffering from polio, whilst they recover from the trauma of hospital and the realisation of a changed life ahead of them, equipping them with physical therapy, schooling and care to prepare them to negotiate the world again. It’s here that Frank meets the two loves of his life: firstly poetry, through his friend Sullivan, which gives him a new purpose in life and a new language to navigate; then Elsa, a beautiful girl with whom he falls deeply in love.
In each other Frank and Elsa find companionship and an understanding of their new selves. Each of the patients becomes akin to an orphan as they enter the care of the nursing staff at The Golden Age - their families no longer understand their physical capabilities and emotional trauma and a great distance forms between them. It is only those around them day after day who truly understand. At Christmas, when many of the children go home for the holidays, they find themselves confronted with the reality of their new bodies:
Until they went home they’d forgotten they were in a tragedy. Old haunts, toys, books lay all around them, remnants of a past life. Other siblings had taken over their bikes, their beds, their place in the family. Some families treated them like babies, almost needing to be fed.
There is a constant power struggle between the children of The Golden Age and the world around them. Between sickness and health, the loved and the unrecognised, new and old worlds, the travelled and the naive. The Gold’s, as new arrivals to Australia, perhaps understand the trauma of polio better than others, having already found themselves adapting to a new way of life. 1950’s Perth is in many ways far from the cosmopolitan city of Budapest that they have left behind, and the Gold’s often feel disconnected from their new surroundings. When Frank is asked to learn the kings of England during class:
‘These kings of England. I don’t see the point.’
‘That’s our history, Frank. That’s where we come from.’
‘I don’t.’ Before he’d come here, he’d never heard of The Royal Family. Here, they were everywhere. Mugs, pencil cases, newspaper headlines. The King Dies. The Coronation. The Royal Visit. They were life film stars.
‘But you’re in the British Empire now! She’s our Queen too. The British rule the world.’
He couldn’t stand the thought that he had come to a country which once again was inferior to another, like a servant to a child. It enraged him. This was a rage that Australians seemed to want to beat out of him. Australians were like good children. They frowned at you if you didn’t stand up for ‘God Save the Queen’ at the start of a picture show.
But where the emotion lies in The Golden Age is not in the struggles, but in Joan London’s ability to beautifully capture those rare gifts that take us outside of ourselves. There is the subtle, haunting love story between Frank and Elsa that is told so deftly by London it radiates. There is Frank’s love of poetry; words and rhythms that take him to a different place, something he can truly call his own:
Mrs Simmons didn’t understand poetry. Nobody in this room did. Sullivan had opened a door to a world that made everything have meaning, and when he died, it closed behind him.
And there’s the expanse of their natural surroundings. The enormity of the Australian landscape: the huge skies, the verdant expanses of open fields, the oppression of a heatwave followed by the tingling relief of a cool wind bouncing off the ocean. London’s words act like a brush gliding across a canvas as she describes both the harshness and the beauty of the ragged west coast. But she also understands a truly Australian feeling, from deep within the gut. The feeling that keeps us anchored to the country, that becomes claustrophobic in densely populated cities across seas.
At this time of the day she always found an excuse to go outside for a moment. It was as if she was being called. If she didn’t go she felt trapped.
At any opportunity, like his mother here above, Frank seeks time and space to himself in the garden, away from the regimented routine of The Golden Age - the theatre, as Elsa describes it - as they are moved between therapy, school and bed. It reminded me of my Grandmother, when she eventually became so unwell that she could no longer stay home and was moved to a nursing home. She was put in a room with a view out on to the garden - something to remind her of home, and some clear space to make her feel independent, something she had staunchly held on to despite multiple cancers and strokes. As her health continued to decline to a stage of helplessness, the only ray of light that eased her pain were regular injections of vitamin D. I think about this often—it makes me feel tied to her like nothing else, despite our many commonalities. There was no better anti-depressant during those dark times than sunshine injected directly into her bloodstream.
Nothing makes me feel more at ease, and indeed myself, than being surrounded by a sea of green trees, clean, fresh air, the gentle twittering of birds and the warmth of sunshine on my skin. It’s a feeling of independence, of calm, of escape that gives me time to stop, take a deep breath and clear my head. It keeps all the niggling thoughts in my brain and the aches in my body at bay just long enough to recharge. In fact I always know when I’m unwell because it’s the only time I want cool, dark surroundings. But as I sat in the dappled sunlight of the garden in northern Tasmania reading The Golden Age, the sun warming me but the trees protecting my skin, I felt calmer, quieter, more still than I had known since our trip to northern New South Wales more than six months previously (which I talked about in Drown and The White Tiger). Something keeps dragging me north - some unidentifiable tug - towards sunshine, towards quiet, towards space. What I found in The Golden Age were a collection of people who understood - who also found independence in nature, despite whatever obstacles life threw at them.
This is a truly special book. It holds a quiet grace that keeps this a subtle tragedy, rather than an overwrought drama. Joan London writes so beautifully of the landscape, of words and of love that it feels more like reading a collection of poetry than a novel, akin to the old masters of Blake or Keats. But it’s more powerful than that too, because it’s deeply relatable. It has a nostalgia to it certainly, but it is not alienating or over characterised. Like Emily Bitto’s The Strays it uses its setting to its advantage, but doesn’t over rely on it either. The characters are still the ones who shine through, and in London’s hands, they will find a little place in your heart and mind for a long time to come.
As we came to the end of our time in northern Tasmania, we made sure we made the most of every day. Long walks around the town to appreciate the stunning views, lazy afternoons reading and playing cards, and breakfasts in the sunny garden. Part of staying at this house over Christmas meant looking after the chickens while the homeowner was away, something we were more than happy to do. First to live a week of the dream we have to move somewhere quiet, grow our own vegetables and lead a slower life. But also - fresh eggs! With eggs this fresh I was keen to try out this Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe from his great book River Cottage Veg Every Day. Very lightly blanched asparagus are used instead of toast soldiers to spear your way into the soft boiled eggs, which are lifted by dropping in a few drops of cider vinegar and a little lump of butter that, when mixed with the yolk, becomes a sort of instant hollandaise sauce. It is a gooey, eggy mess but completely delicious. To ensure it works, the eggs really need to be a bit underdone. I like my yolks very soft, but even a minute too long on the stove, or pausing to take a photo can stop this from working, so best to err on the very soft side. The result is a little every day joy, a little yolky ray of sunshine to brighten your day. Something we can surely never have too much of.