London’s The Golden Age is set in Australia in and around a children’s convalescent home of the same name and chronicles the love between two young polio survivors.
The book takes up two pieces of history: the polio epidemic of the early 1950s and the experiences of “New Australians,” as the arrivals displaced by World War II were called. Was one the starting point?
The novel began one day when I was thinking about starting school as a six-year-old in 1954. There were at least 50 kids to a class—it was the postwar baby boom. Every morning we had to line up across the gravel playground. Suddenly I found myself remembering the two or three kids in calipers in those lines. Polio survivors: there was an aura about them, an apartness, a stoic dignity. Putting myself back in that time made me remember going into Perth as a young child with my mother and hearing foreign languages spoken for the first time. Ours was such a provincial, colonial, Anglo-centric little outpost then, and these newcomers fascinated me.
This book features survivors—of polio and the Holocaust, or both. Is that how you thought of the characters?
As I wrote the book and drew on my memories from childhood, I became aware of how much the era of the late 1940s and early ’50s was still a time of recovery from the Second World War. In the framed wedding photos that took pride of place in living rooms all around my suburb, the groom, and often the bride as well, were in uniform. In some ways, the older generation were all survivors of the first half of the 20th century: two world wars, revolutions, the rise of Communism, and the Great Depression.
How do you see the love story working with these other elements?
I think that at the heart of most novels there is a love story, in some form—sexual love, family love, love of friends or animals. Love and desire, nurture, resentment, and jealousy are the engines of human action and, even in a novel of adventure or war, create the vital thread that runs through it. There is something delicious about an attraction between two characters, in whatever variation, something that, perhaps because we can all identify with these currents, makes us want to know how it turns out.
The head nurse at the Golden Age, Sister Olive Penny, is the kind of woman we tend to think didn’t exist in the ’50s. She’s a career woman, comfortable with her sexuality, confident about her choices. Are we underestimating the women of that era?
Sister Olive Penny surprised me. She just jumped off the page. But I think that there have always been such women, in all generations, somehow gifted with a sense of self, of independence of thought and the courage to be true to her own understanding of the human condition.