Joan London’s The Golden Age scored the top spot in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards fiction section. Read our review for this poetic historical novel below, and check out the full list of winners for the PM Lit Awards here.
Frank is no ordinary 13-year-old living in Perth in 1954. After surviving the German occupation of Hungary, he and his parents migrate to Western Australia. He contracts polio and eventually joins 13 other children at the Golden Age, a former pub turned into a convalescent home for the young victims of the great polio epidemics of the mid-20th century. While still in hospital, he meets another polio victim, a young man confined to an iron lung, who encourages Frank to become a poet.
Joan London paints a luminous picture of Frank, wheelchair-bound but determined to walk, and of other children at the home. Her discerning eye also introduces his parents —with their European ways and initial distaste for Australia — as well as Elsa, 12, who lives at the Golden Age while her mother looks after a baby and another sister at home. There is poetry on every page of this book (and not just when Frank is fashioning it on a purloined prescription pad): the scents and sounds of Perth on summer days, the joy that the children feel on a beach outing, the way Frank’s parents are gradually absorbed into Australian life, and how Frank and Elsa become soulmates.
Just like all good poetry, London’s words tell a story at multiple levels. Not just the two young people facing life as cripples (as Frank and Elsa refer to themselves), but also their families, and the staff at the Golden Age are revealingly portrayed. Fact blends with fiction in this gentle novel; the Golden Age did exist as a children’s polio convalescent home in Perth from 1949 to 1959, and London also describes the royal visit to Perth in 1954, which was almost cancelled because of the polio outbreak.
Highly Recommended – Vintage
Reviewed by Jennifer Somerville