Sunday 29 November 2015

The Golden Age - Joan London (2014)

Joan London is a Perth born writer of some renown, although not as highly regarded as Tim Winton, perhaps in part due to London’s sporadic output since the nineteen eighties. The Golden Age is only London’s third novel and first since the well received The Good Parents in 2008. Although London has not amassed a great body of work she has more than made up for it by the quality of her novels. This was recently recognized when she won the Patrick White Award for 2015, an award set up by White in 1973 with his Nobel Prize in Literature money to help draw attention to otherwise unrecognized Australian writers. According to Wikipedia White wanted the award to be announced just a week after the annual Melbourne Cup horse race in an attempt to draw attention to literature rather than sport! A great curmudgeonly tactic there Patrick.

The Golden Age is set in the mid nineteen fifties during the polio epidemic that would eventually infect some 40,000 Australians. The novel takes its name from a hotel that was converted into a hospice situated in the inner city Perth suburb of Leederville. Here we meet teenager Frank Gold, a Hungarian WWII refugee with an interest in poetry and pretty fellow teenager Isa. Their relationship and the hospice itself are the focal point around which a series of vignettes unfold that reveal the inner workings of a young society trying to cope with the tragedy of polio and the aftermath of WWII. The parents who come to visit the children interact in ways that reveal their class anxieties, a concept the children find alienating after the great leveler of polio has given them a common connection. The relationship between the children and the nurses brings a warmth and depth to the narrative that is palpable. The most significant minor character is Sister Olive Penny; an example of a post-war woman living independently of men and marriage.

London’s prose style is deceptively simple. Within what seems to be merely a teenage love story lurks great depths. All it takes is a quiet turn of phrase to open up the psychological world of a character. Frank Gold’s musings, romantic yearnings and earnest attempts at poetry all conspire to engage the reader. At times I had strong emotional reactions to what I was reading that seemed to come from nowhere. Cleverly, without you really noticing, in just over two hundred short pages London reveals the inner workings of 1950s Perth family life and society as a whole. The Perth of the past is evoked beautifully, with the summer heat, old buildings and beach settings.

The end of novel is set far into the characters futures and is both satisfyingly realistic and profoundly effecting. The way London deals with the characters’ emotional lives is remarkably nuanced and touching. Also the brevity of the end section provides just enough to satisfy the desire generated in the novel’s main body to know just how the future will pan out for the principal protagonists. On the evidence of this novel London is certainly a top class writer in the league of Tim Winton and has written one of the definitive novels set in the isolated wild west of Perth. London missed out on winning the Miles Franklin Award for The Golden Age, but I’m sure it will not matter as a novel this good will definitely find an audience.

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