Does Australia have too many literary awards? Almost every year there seems to be a new one, a far cry from the 1950s when Miles Franklin left a bequest to establish the award that now bears her name.
My response has always been that few Australian authors get anything like adequate recognition and payment for the time and effort they put into their writing. So any prize money is a bonus, especially if winning also means they sell more books, though only the Miles Franklin seems to have a marked impact on sales.
This year, as chair of judging panel for the Nita B Kibble Literary Awards for Women Writers, I had a front-row seat – as I have had in the past – on the judging process.
Deciding on the winner of a literary award is, in the end, a highly subjective process. It is not too difficult to sort out the best dozen or so books from the many other entries. So there is usually a lot of overlap between shortlists for awards, allowing for differences in their rules and date ranges. But rarely does a book win more than one of them.
This year, it seemed that Joan London’s The Golden Age (2014) might do so. It received great praise from reviewers when published last August and later appeared on many “best books of the year” lists. So it was no surprise to find it shortlisted for the awards so far announced this year: the Stella Prize, the Miles Franklin, the NSW Premier’s, the ALS Gold Medal, the Australian Book Industry Awards, and the Nita Kibble Award.
But London was to win neither the Stella nor the Miles, which went to less experienced novelists, Emily Bitto and Sofie Laguna respectively. When our judging panel decided in early April to give the Kibble Award – announced last week – to The Golden Age, the winners of the other five awards were still unknown. I assumed that London would already have won at least one of them, making the Kibble prize less significant for her.
I have admired London’s fiction ever since the publication of her first collection of stories, Sister Ships, in 1986. As a member of the Miles Franklin judging panel in 2002, I very much wanted her first novel Gilgamesh to win. But that was the year of Tim Winton’s Dirt Music.
With only two collections of stories and three novels published over almost 30 years, London has been much less prolific than her fellow Western Australian. This is probably one reason why her work has received much less attention. Although each of her books has won at least one award and been shortlisted for many others, they have attracted little in the way of extended critical response.
That’s even more surprising when one thinks how rare it is for a fiction writer to be equally good at short stories and novels. Most of the great writers of short fiction, such as Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield and Henry Lawson did not publish longer works. The fiction of Winton and David Malouf, who have also published acclaimed novels and stories, has attracted several book-length studies as well as numerous critical essays.
Why has London been neglected? Is it that her novels and stories are less recognisably Australian than Winton’s and Malouf’s? They do not deal with big national stories or iconic landscapes, and have tended to focus on female rather than male characters.
The latter is less true of The Golden Age, whose central character is Frank Gold, a young Jewish refugee who has survived the Holocaust in Europe only to fall ill with polio after arriving in Perth with his parents. We meet Frank in a former pub called The Golden Age, now converted into a convalescent home for children recovering from polio. At 13, he is the oldest patient there and is immediately attracted to Elsa, who is nearest his own age.
Later, in a flashback, we see a terrified younger Frank hiding from the Nazis in the apartment of his mother’s piano teacher. And in the beautifully judged ending, we meet a much older Frank in New York and learn of his and Elsa’s later lives.
But while Frank is the bridging character who links the novel’s past and future times to its present of 1954, all London’s characters are drawn with great care and insight, even the minor ones. There is Sullivan Backhouse, whose privileged background cannot stop him dying in an iron lung, though not before he has bequeathed to Frank his poetic vocation.
And there is young Albert, so desperate to get back to his large family that he tries to run away in his wheelchair. Not to mention Frank and Elsa’s very different parents, the home’s nurses and the other parents and children.
Unlike much contemporary Australian fiction, The Golden Age is not narrated in the first person or from the perspective of one character. This makes the author’s task more complicated but results in a much richer reading experience since we are allowed into each character’s inner life, making them all vividly present.
While not a long novel – 240 pages of fairly large print – the skills of selection and compression London honed in her short stories allow her to recreate the contrasting worlds of The Golden Age in compelling detail. The extensive historical research needed to depict Budapest before and during the second world war and Perth in 1954 is never intrusive.
In 1954, the year of young Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Australia, the old colonial order is being increasingly challenged by new arrivals from Europe like the Golds. They, in their turn, are also forced to change – Ida to accept that her audience will now be “The émigrés, the petit bourgeois, the nouveau riche”, Meyer to find a sense of belonging in farming.
Unlike the winners of the Stella and Franklin prizes, both of which featured dysfunctional families, with violent or neglectful parents, The Golden Age offers a message of hope and survival, of making the best of the hand one has been dealt. While neither conventionally happy nor fashionably unhappy, like all the best novels it is filled with the stuff of life.