When I remember being a child and reading, I think first of sunlight, which I was always manoeuvring to be partly, though not wholly, in. This sunlight is always linked to quiet, to stillness. The sense of movement around me, but happening at a distance – my mother talking on the telephone (her voice louder as she strayed to the very end of the cord), or my sister using her sewing machine – the sort of movement that envelops you but allows you to be alone. The psychotherapist and writer Adam Phillips, referring to D. W. Winnicott’s essay ‘The Capacity to be Alone’ (1958), says that ‘the goal for the child is to be alone in the presence of the mother. For a long time this has seemed to me to be the single best definition of reading’.
Perhaps the best definition of good writing is the kind that recreates this safe aloneness, this suspended awareness of the self, this being lost but at the same time attached. We adult readers can go a long time between books that have this effect, and still be entertained and even inspired by what we read. But if we are lucky, every few years a book or a writer will appear that brings this sense back – a book that makes us feel as though that stillness in the centre of movement has been both captured and, in the act of reading, reproduced.
Joan London’s The Golden Age is this kind of book, and as I have learned in these last months of reading, she is this kind of writer. The best word that I can come up with to describe London’s voice is mature, which has not much to do with the author’s age, and everything to do with her skill. It is the sort of writing that does not immediately invite a mental reply, whether that reply is how wonderful! or how awful! It does not obscure its subject – no chorus line of verbs or orchestra of adjectives gets in the way of what she is writing about. Her writing, which calls attention to itself only by its precision, gives you an opportunity, the way silence sometimes does, to reflect productively. Best of all, it returns you to an early pleasure: the pleasure of story, of wanting to know what happens next.
The Golden Age is set in a children’s convalescent home for victims of polio – the novel sitting solidly on the foundations of the real place (same name, same function) in 1950s Perth – and tells the story of a twelve year old boy, Frank Gold. Frank is the child of Hungarian refugees Ida and Meyer, who have come unwillingly to Perth (they had hoped for America). Meyer has done more than resign himself to this; he has a capacity for happiness that carries him though the novel. He is always on the move, always buoyant, always alight. Ida, on the other hand, is still and dark and angry. The miseries and terrible losses of the Holocaust will never be in the past for her, and her son’s disablement by polio, contracted after they settle in Perth, is one cruelty too many. Once she was a concert pianist, but since Frank’s illness she has not touched a piano. Her not-playing – and the resolution of this – is one of the book’s background melodies, if you will: a sad tune, quietly heard throughout.
The novel opens as vividly as a dream, announcing its reality with the same feeling a dream gives you: that same, inevitable, this could only be as it is.
One afternoon during rest-time, the new boy, Frank Gold, left his bed, lowered himself into his wheelchair and glided down the corridor. There was nobody around.
Already we find Frank in search of the same space that the fortunate reader inhabits: a space where he is held and kept safe, in his case by the hospital, but nonetheless allowed to be alone. It is important to note that despite its setting, The Golden Age is not a misery novel. It does not tell a story of abuse, and although it gives us a candid and painful account of Frank’s suffering, both as a small boy hidden from Nazis in 1940s Budapest and a few years later as a polio patient, it does not ask us to be either voyeur or fellow-sufferer. The Golden Age is a story about Frank’s dawning and intensely vivid realisation of self – probably accelerated or exaggerated by his experience as a patient, but in truth available to any child who is given enough psychic space in which to grow up.
Frank has been moved from the adults’ polio hospital to The Golden Age, where he will be the oldest patient. It feels to him like a demotion. In his previous incarnation as The Kid at IDB (the Infectious Diseases Branch of the Royal Perth Hospital), he was able to exploit his capacity for charm, to make friends, to feel freer, less seen. At IDB, he met Sullivan, an ‘adult’ (just eighteen) in the iron lung ward, who would lie all day looking at the white ceiling, thinking and composing poetry:
it must have snowed
this is all
I can see now.
The two spend hours together. Frank transcribes Sullivan’s poetry, and comes to understand that to be a poet is his vocation too. He writes his rhymeless verse on a discarded prescription pad. Conversation about poetry achieves for the two patients what literature sometimes can – respite, and a feeling of clarity in the midst of chaos. London creates a sense of genuine companionship between these two. She does not overstate the pathos of Sullivan’s death in the early pages of the novel, intuitively understanding – or perhaps remembering – how children deal with loss. In this understatement, she renders their relationship indelible.
After Sullivan’s death, it is thought that Frank will do better at a hospital for children. This is where we see him first, climbing into his wheelchair at rest-time in The Golden Age, with one object: to glimpse the only other child his age, Elsa. She is the single creature who saves him from disgust at his new surroundings, from the indignity of his demotion. The relationship with Elsa is the new poetry in his life; he has someone to write to again. Elsa already has the sense of self that Frank is moving towards. Her status as the oldest child in her family has something to do with this, but it is polio that has given her the strength and calm that Frank is drawn to. London’s description of Elsa’s initial infection and her time in the Isolation Ward – clearly the worst and most painful part of each patient’s illness – is frightening. But it is also balanced, like Elsa herself. Elsa survives, partly for her mother, but partly because of a self she has found at the height of her suffering: ‘another person inside her who had suddenly taken charge, a sort of captain who was going to hold on no matter what’.
Elsa’s captain calls to Frank’s poet. This calling could be said to constitute the plot of The Golden Age: Elsa and Frank ‘fall in love’ (or in fact, simply love each other), and their growing relationship results in a physical encounter that causes the main movement or upheaval of the narrative. But the plot is infinitely more complex and interesting than this suggests. To focus on their relationship and its potential difficulties would be to forget all the fascinating action that takes place around them. London has a deep awareness of her characters’ sensual selves, and Elsa and Frank are not the only two people awakened to their bodies. Sister Olive Penny from The Golden Age, whose husband has died in the war and whose daughter has grown up, is visited by a few of the local policemen for encounters that are as satisfying and sustaining to her as they presumably are to the men, whose point of view we are not treated to. The description of Sister Penny putting ‘her soft breasts back in their cups, button[ing] her uniform, quickly stuff[ing] a hanky into her knickers’ and reflecting that her sex life ‘fed into her work’ is as vivid and sensual as any explicit scene. She is a sexually awake woman who is neither predator nor victim, and only one of The Golden Age’s richly imagined secondary characters.
The Golden Age is told in the third-person and moves through points of view which are signalled by chapters with titles such as ‘Frank’s Vocation’, but which are sometimes to do with location: ‘The Sea’, ‘The Verandah’. Each character who thinks or speaks is allowed London’s careful attention, from Meyer and Olive through to Elsa’s mother, whose grief for and worry about her daughter is as judiciously handled as all the other emotional content of this novel. Comparisons have been made before to the work of Alice Munro, and indeed London has that same respect for every character that Munro does. Her writing is free from the sort of contempt that so many novelists rain down on their minor characters. Often you can feel a writer dealing various blows to people they would like to punish, whether the man who cut them off in traffic or the girl who bullied them at school. Anyone who writes knows that this can be a temptation hard to resist, but London shares with Munro and her hero Chekhov a determination to realise her characters’ inner selves, so that their faults and casual cruelties are universal and, most importantly, shared or borne by the author.
One can feel a sort of patience at work in London’s choice of words, as though she is prepared to wait for the right expression – as when Frank reflects on his move to The Golden Age:
He felt like a pirate landing on an island of little maimed animals. A great wave had swept them up and dumped them here. All of them, like him, stranded, wanting to go home.
In an excellent interview with Charlotte Wood (part of Wood’s digital treasure trove, The Writer’s Room), London talks of the work editors have done for her:
they apply themselves with unstinting concentration to the sense and logic of your sentences, the unconscious contradictions or repetitions you have made, and commit themselves to the voice and point of view of the writer.
If this is so, then London is very lucky, because her editors are so good that their presence in the text cannot be detected. The Golden Age reads as though only London herself has had control of the words, and that control has come about through this deep and patient waiting, a kind of resistance to the hurriedness of publishing schedules and contemporary life.
London’s previous novels, Gilgamesh (2000) and The Good Parents (2008) have this same centredness, and the same kind of architecture. London incorporates stories from past and present, characters major and minor, in their youth and maturity. In doing so, she risks building novels that look as though they have been frequently renovated. But I am noticing her structures with a reviewer’s eye, trying to understand the way she works; to the reader I gratefully and restfully became in my first pass through The Golden Age, the architecture is almost invisible. So many contemporary novels fail to do what Annie Dillard calls ‘erasing your tracks’. They can make you feel unpleasantly active, always aware of the writer and their elaborate scaffolding. By contrast, London’s novels seem to float, unsupported.
There are themes running through all of London’s novels – a rather high number of difficult sisters (perhaps because London has sisters herself), and an abiding interest in the past. In The Writer’s Room interview she says:
I think that often the older you get the more you write about the past. I notice that with Alice Munro. Her stories were once coming right out of the recent past, or at the time of writing, of children and marriage and lovers and things like that. Now, more and more, they are set in the past, in her childhood in the 1930s and so on.
She goes on to say:
Perhaps the individual events in one’s own life stop being so momentous, and one’s interest switches to those events in the past that are the origin of where we are now, individually or socially.
And perhaps this is what I mean by the maturity in London’s writing: the slow shifting of focus from the self to the universal; the understanding that who we are is not simply about us. In Gilgamesh, the main character Edith is interrogated by her Anglo-Russian cousin Leopold about Group Settlement in Western Australia: ‘Was it a social experiment? And, if not, had it fulfilled its capitalist aims?’ Edith and her sister cannot answer: ‘They had never thought of these questions, in fact they did not really understand their terms.’ In this brief scene, London captures the childlike self-centredness of white Australia in the first half of the twentieth century, and brings us to consider the gift that was post-war settlement, the alteration in Australian culture that occurred with the influx of European refugees, a kind of awakening. The universal in the personal, all in the space of a page.
London still draws on her own experience, but it is atmosphere she seeks, not narrative. Of 1954, the year in which The Golden Age is largely set, London says, ‘I was six then, and for some reason that time has a sort of light around it’. This instinct, to try and capture this ‘light’, gives a certain radiance to all of London’s work.
London has said that most of her ideas now become novels, although she has been writing short stories since the late 1980s. I like the short stories less than her longer work, though they are invariably Londonesque in being closely observed and beautifully written. But by comparison with the novels, they seem to lack articulation, or declaration; they never quite tell you what they are about. Though they have that same tendency to intricate architecture, the architecture is not invisible – it disguises intent, muffles voice. There is also a variation of tone, which I know many would praise in a collection of short stories, but which I find to be simply distracting. This is not true, however, of the two most recent inclusions in London’s collection The New Dark Age (2010): ‘The Photographer’ and the title story. The latter is only twenty pages long but has that astounding Munrovian effect: it is a jack-in-the-box story, full of compressed information, which when released springs into something much bigger.
In some of Munro’s best stories, and in London’s novels, we often meet characters in their earliest youth and then move over large tracts of their life into their old age. It’s an odd feeling, being asked to be suddenly familiar with a character who has aged 40 or 50 years – and often, in both Munro’s and London’s work, a character who has shed the violent quirks of youth and become someone more thoughtful, more measured. This was my only difficulty with The Golden Age. The story ends fifty years beyond its beginnings, in New York. The ending has the feeling of a coda, but also of an attempted resolution. Frank is now imagined as ‘an old man with a cane’, but a successful poet, too, with his laptop and his ergonomic chair. Perhaps it is resolution itself that I have difficulty with, when The Golden Age feels all about irresolution, about movement and growth and continuous change, with time feeling endlessly springy and resilient. In other words, perhaps it is my problem. I certainly hated seeing Frank surrounded by the trappings of the twenty-first century. It felt like a misstep, a change in tone too abrupt, a surrender to the reader’s curiosity, when perhaps the reader ought to be left in that lovely suspended state in which Frank and Elsa find themselves in the penultimate chapter.
The Golden Age is nevertheless a book that carries the quiet assurance of a classic, which it will most certainly become. Adam Phillips notes the importance of ‘the early experience of being in the presence of somebody without being impinged upon by their demands’. When I look into my life, I see myself sitting in a car with my husband while the Bathurst plains unroll beside us; under the changing shade of a tree with a child asleep on my lap; holding my mother’s hand in the last weeks of her life. In the presence of someone – fully present, utterly connected, but being asked for nothing. It is this magical state that Joan London’s new novel conjures up.
Joan London, Gilgamesh (Picador, 2000).
Joan London, The Good Parents (Picador, 2008).
Joan London, The New Dark Age (Vintage, 2010).
Charlotte Wood, The Writer’s Room Interviews.