Meyer and Ida Gold flee Hungary during World War II and find themselves in Perth, Australia, with their son, Frank. They hope to start a new life, but everything comes apart when Frank contracts polio. In 1954, he is sent to recover in a pub converted into a convalescent home called the Golden Age. There, Frank meets Elsa, a 12-year-old Perth native, and slowly the two begin to aid in each other’s recovery while falling in love. For the Golds, Australia is a world away from Hungary, and they are isolated and alone. Ida, once a renowned concert pianist, shuts down; she refuses to play and struggles to accept life in her adopted country. Meyer, in turn, works to find little joys in discovering his home and sheds wartime loss as he integrates with society. Intertwined are the stories of Olive Penny, a nurse at the Golden Age, who struggles with relationships, and Elsa’s mother, Margaret, who gives up the notions of being the perfect wife and mother and tries to reconcile with her daughter’s illness.
The Golden Age has won numerous awards in Australia, including the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction. London’s writing is at its best when bringing to life the coming-of-age story between Frank and Elsa: their hopes and fears (and those of other polio-stricken children), their resolve, and their disappointments. The setting and place are rich and detailed, and Perth feels alive. The side stories interrupt the main one; serving as little vignettes, they make the book feel disjointed, more like a collection of short stories. Though they’re well-written, I would have not missed any of them and would have just enjoyed Frank and Elsa’s tale.
Originally appeared in: Historical Novels Review, Nov. 2016