“Polio is like love, … years later, when you think you have recovered, it comes back.”
The story in The Golden Age is straightforward enough – It’s 1954; thirteen-year old Frank, a Jewish immigrant boy from Hungary, falls in love with Elsa, a twelve-year old local girl, in the eponymous polio hospital for children. The relationship develops bit by bit as Frank pursues Elsa, and the story, is at its simplest, is about what happens to them. This is pure, passionate, young love, the sort that changes people who experience it forever.
But the book is about so much more. There are myriad complexities – hope, passion and the universal power of love are embodied in Hungarian, Jewish Ferenc, now Frank. The simple world of childhood has long been lost to him and his young years in Nazi occupied Hungary are horrific, filled with terror —
“Lie down,” Hedwiga called, ‘and don’t move or the ceiling will creak. Not a sound…”… “But when Hedwiga opened the trapdoor and lifted him down, something had happened to him. For many days he did not speak with his voice.”
…. “ he could still sense that time in the ceiling somewhere deep in his body. … He felt it as the weak spot, the broken part, the gap that had let polio in.”
The Gold family have escaped this nightmare world and arrived Australia, where they are foreign, New Australians, disoriented and struggling to understand this new place, this new culture. Meyer, the father is, at least, able to think about it:
“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.”
Frank knows he must live and do it well because his parents need that from him, need him to to live a bright, unblighted life. It seems he might fulfil that when he wins a scholarship to a good school. Then he contracts polio, perhaps from being sent to the fish and chip shop on this occasion, the Gold family’s first feeling of celebration. It’s a cruel thing to happen to this much-traumatised family, the proverbial straw.
Elsa too has to live for her mother – this mother, Margaret, is as unsophisticated in her ‘cloppity shoes’ and dishevelled life, as Ida, Franks mother, is highly cultured. Elsa, the oldest, is aware that she is the centre of her mother’s life, and that her mother is as devastated, perhaps more so, than she herself about polio. Both Frank and Elsa are burdened by being the hope for their parents, the embodiment of a future that will be less disappointing. Both refuse the role.
In fact, removed from the strictures of their family dynamics, the two children are unexpectedly free :
“Something had happened to her which she didn’t yet understand. As if she’d gone away and come back distant form everybody.
… Without your mother, you had to think.
It was like letting go of a hand, jumping off the high board, walking by yourself to school. Once, you’d done it, you were never afraid of it again.”
In these succinct lines, London captures the developmental arc, the psychology of individuation. Frank and Elsa, right on the brink of adolescence, with all the open possibility and fervour it brings, have lost the assumption of a future in which they can choose how to engage with life. Now, they are forever marked and curbed by the long term effects of Polio.
They are resilient – and the redemptive, creative power of love is explored as these two young people confront the beginnings of the ‘real’ world of adulthood, albeit within the cocoon of the Golden Age. This unlikely place turns out to be a reprieve from the rest of the world as much as it is a place of pain and suffering. The adults in the book are themselves wrangling with life – the Golds, the Briggs, the Sullivans, Sister Penny, all have adult concerns: money, belonging, work, relationships and marriages. All are struggling with loss, especially the senior Golds who have lost their entire families, their culture, even their proper name – Meyer asks himself “was all happiness just a memory of childhood?” What is happiness anyway?
A concert to commemorate the coronation visit – almost cancelled because of the polio ‘plague’ is put on, the Queen’s Concert.
“What monarchists they are, Meyer thought, these colonials. A tiny lost tribe on the coast of a huge island, faithfully waiting for a ship from the motherland.”
He, perhaps more than ‘these colonials’ knows he cannot rely on any presumed order or authority. Perhaps that’s why Meyer comes to terms with his new country much more ably than Ida. She, having lost her brilliant career and not having touched her piano since Frank fell ill, agrees to reprise her role as a concert pianist as “a thank-you note for Frank’s recovery. To the Golden Age, but also to Fate. They could not risk ingratitude.”
And Frank – as he says himself – has “two devils, war and polio and two angels, love and poetry.” A lovely metaphor for how, although we are shaped by that which befalls us, we respond to it from our essential selves as do all the people in the story; Meyer is remote, too remote to even have an affair. Ida struggles with disappointment and bitterness, and everything is about the war. Elsa’s mother finds strength. Sister Penny becomes wise. For Frank/Feri loss, repair, repatriation come to together in love and poetry.
The whole book is itself a poem of sorts. Perth in the 1950s is beautifully rendered, and of course it’s nostalgic for anyone who has lived there. The characters are multi-dimensional and given to us as whole people with flaws, hopes, dreams, disappointments. Frank, no longer a child, not yet a man, discovers the Third Country, that of love, which is “… like poetry. It felt right or it didn’t. If it was given to you, you had to take it.” He becomes a poet; it’s where he is free.
I loved that. I loved the book.