Author Joan London's new novel is The Golden Age.

Fremantle author Joan London has put Perth at the front and centre of her third novel, The Golden Age. The WA Premier's Book Awards winner named her novel for a one-time pub and well-known children's home in Leederville.

She drew on the expertise of local author and former patient Jan Lord in painting a picture of the rehabilitation home which later became a nursing school, then the freeway.

London's lead character, 13-year-old Feri "Frank" Gold, is an intense young Pole who has survived the polio virus to pass his days in the rehabilitation hospital. Frank is also a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, one who battles his memories of being cloistered in a ceiling by his protectors.

The youngster has discovered a vocation for poetry during his time in hospital, taking inspiration from another patient who dies on the ward.

Frank is mesmerised by shining light Elsa Briggs, a slightly younger girl whose Christian parents Jack and Margaret hail from Swanbourne.

Their teenage romance is awkward and moving, as each deals with the reality of life after illness, while reconciling this experience with the variously unrealistic expectations of family members.

London, a former bookseller at New Edition Fremantle, says reading The Diary of Anne Frank at age 12 had a significant effect on her.

"I was interested in writing about the long-term results of trauma during a life, both the effect of a life-threatening illness on a child, and on those who had survived the trauma of war in Europe," she says.

London set her tale in 1954, the year Queen Elizabeth II became the first reigning monarch of Australia to visit the nation and Perth, and nine years after the end of World War II.

Two years earlier Dr Jonas Salk had developed the first effective vaccine for polio but it was another year before the shot was licensed for use.

"I wanted to write about the 50s, the time of my childhood, when the schools were overflowing with baby-boomer kids — sometimes more than 50 in a class," London says.

The Gilgamesh author and 2002 Miles Franklin Literary Award short-lister has a vivid recollection of the period, which was enhanced during a writing process that took five or six years. (London's last book was her second novel, The Good Parents, in 2008.)

"I had memories of huge gravel playgrounds, and I remembered lining up in long queues for a polio injection from a nurse, at a table on the veranda," she says.

London does not hail from a Jewish background but the threat of polio was felt keenly by her family.

"I remembered my mother's stories of the fear of polio in the 1940s, with my older sisters, trying to avoid public places, not swimming in the river," the storyteller says.

The Age Book of the Year winner paints a vivid picture of the Swan River in The Golden Age, and the nation's "New Australians".

"The Holocaust and its aftermath were little known in the general population, although quite a lot of its survivors came to Australia," she says.

Her migrant child Frank has two similarly insular parents, Meyer and Ida. Ida is a world-class pianist whose mental framework is still very much a Europe of the past.

Meyer is more pragmatic and accessible but, like his wife, the factory worker is willing to let new opportunity pass by him.

In Ida's case, she passes on a chance to revive her musical career, looking down on a chance to make a name for herself in her adopted town.

Meyer, meanwhile, has an intellectual affair with hospital matron Sister Olive Penny but opts not to consummate the mesmerising relationship, watching the mother-of-one drive off after a deliberate and charged encounter at Swanbourne Beach.

Before their passing in the night, a nurse discovers young Frank and Elsa together in a fumbling hospital-bed encounter that scandalises the board of governors.

They are split up and torn apart, helping to fashion the youngsters' eventual paths in life.

Both take the road less travelled, Frank as New York poet, and Elsa as a leading medical practitioner.

London acknowledges the literary tale is a romance.

"When I wrote The Golden Age, the atmosphere of that time, of family life, school life and social attitudes came back to me," she says.

"It is also a love story — a little world, in which through shared experiences, these new cultural differences were beginning to be bridged, the beginning of contemporary Australia."

The Golden Age is published by Vintage ($33, ebook $12); Janet Homes a Court will launch the book at New Edition Fremantle next Tuesday at 6.30pm. The function will also serve as an unofficial celebration of the store's reopening in Fremantle, down the road from its previous location.

The West Australian

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