Reading the Stella Prize shortlist – The Golden Age by Joan London


“What had been temporary had become settled. What had seemed like the end of the world had become the centre.”

I described Joan London’s The Golden Age to a friend as a ‘quiet’ book. And it is. Quietly brilliant.

This isn’t a book with a plot that knocks you over or language that demands your attention. Instead, the characters creep into your heart, win your admiration. London’s words are plain but poetic – I found myself re-reading passages and thinking, “Isn’t that just perfection?”.

“His parents had stood like this at the railing on the deck of the ship to Australia, backs turned to him, slender drifts of smoke curling up above the horizon like the thread of their own thoughts. There was something lonely yet resolute about the way they stood there. It was not quite hope.”

And then there were scenes that were simple but exquisite and I’m still thinking about them – Sullivan in the iron lung; the children in their woolen bathers, lying in the ‘angel bath’; Meyer organising bottles of ginger beer for the concert; Her Majesty’s visit; children in wheelchairs along the verandah at dusk, waiting for the lights at the Netting Factory to come on.

“…some of the young men who came from the Apex Club to play board games with the children, in white shirts and ties, fresh-shaven, with big, clean ears, ushering their fiancees into seats.”

It’s a story about polio –

“He lay awake far into the night. Many things would happen to him in his life, he thought. But they would happen to a cripple.”

It’s a story about first love between Frank and Elsa; it’s a story about poetry –

“Coming to terms with death is a necessary element in any great poem, Sullivan once said. And in this matter, Gold, he’d said, rolling his eyes towards Frank, we have had an early advantage.”

It’s a story about Australian culture seen through the eyes of migrants Ida and Meyer; it’s a story about Sister Penny, a female character who refuses to fit the role expected of her. It’s an uncluttered plot but it’s confident, accomplished storytelling, done with one delicate layer upon another.

In telling these stories, London contrasts themes of isolation and togetherness, and plays with scale – the vastness of Australia, the specific horror of polio.

“The other patients were younger, from all over the state: from Wiluna in the desert, from Broome up the coast, from Rawlinna, a siding on the Trans-Australia line. Nowhere, it seemed, was too remote for the polio virus to find you.”

5/5 Beautiful.

Will it win the Stella Prize? Yes.

13 responses

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  3. Great review Kate. Quiet it is, absolutely. I loved the scene with the children’s excursion, as well as the view of Australia through migrant eyes.

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