“The sunset faded and the first star appeared. Like children everywhere on summer nights, they became free spirits, bold, vagabond, eerie, their grins reckless across their faces… the veranda was a halfway existence, half-inside, half-outside. It took them one step closer to normal life.”
– Joan London, The Golden Age
Of the Stella Prize nominated books I have read so far, this one is easily my favourite! There is something magical about it, an eternal twilight of hope, promise and light. The Golden Age is London’s third novel and it comes across with an assuredness of a master writer, mature in skill and in confidence.
It’s 1954 and thirteen-year-old Frank Gold has just been moved from the Royal Perth Hospital to The Golden Age, a home for convalescent children gripped by the polio epidemic. At the Royal Perth he meets Sullivan – a poet – and assumes the role of scribe and student, learning about the simplicities and beauty of poetry. After Sullivan’s death, Frank promises to finish his poem however he is struck with the inability to write until he is moved to The Golden Age where he meets Elsa, his muse for poetry and life.
The story centres on the relationships of its inhabitants, in particular those of Frank and Elsa and Frank’s parents, Ida and Meyer. Frank is adjusting to his new life in the children’s home, searching for a purpose and a sense of self. Elsa arrives at the home with strength and calm that Frank takes refuge in, a safe place in his life of many transitions. The love between them has the innocence of youth and they become inseparable, sharing moments of quietness in the noise that surrounds them. This is juxtaposed against the relationship of Ida and Meyer. Exiled from their beloved Hungary, they are separated by the past, haunted by ghosts and lost in the nostalgia of times gone past. Their relationship is sad and complex, bereft of a sense of home. Meyer is resigned to his future in Australia, “Budapest was the glamorous love of his life who had betrayed him. Perth was a flat-faced, wide-hipped country girl whom he’d been forced to take as a wife. Only time would tell if one day he would reach across and take her hand…” Whilst Meyer has the capacity for happiness, Ida is eternally dark, angry and distant, lost in her memories of the past. She cannot accept where her life has led too and as Meyer reflects, “he left nostalgia to [her]. The past did not deserve it.” Ida feels her displacement more and more and struggles to regain what has been lost.
Ida, a talented musician, is mortified by the idea of performing at the children’s home as a thank you for Frank’s care. Meyer suggests that her insistence at giving up her career as a musician is a sort of punishment to the Fates for the hand she has been dealt. For Ida, home is Budapest and her music. “Home. She hadn’t called Hungary that for years. She was talking of somewhere else. Her place in music.” I absolutely loved these two characters. I found the complexities of their relationship fascinating to read. For me, they were the centre of the book; I looked forward to their story more than any other characters.
The Golden Age sounds as though it should be quite a depressing story of children ravaged by illness and adults bound by their past but instead London presents the story with hope. There is a light melancholy to it, which perhaps comes from London’s own recollection of the time, albeit as a very young girl. London’s writing is clear and precise. Her characters are closely observed with affectionateness that is patient, waiting for them to find their own way. I won’t be surprised if The Golden Age is the standout winner for 2015. It is already one of my favourite books for the year!