Shortlisted for The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle centres on Lennie and Miriam, 18-year-old working-class twins from London, who are struck down with tuberculosis just as their lives seem to be about to begin. After a failed attempt at recovering at home, they are sent to the Gwendo, a state-of-the-art sanatorium. This ‘luxury’ treatment has only recently made available to them thanks to the founding of the National Health Service, and they are some of the first non-private patients to be admitted.
From there, the novel’s focus widens to take in the strange assortment of characters that make up the patients and staff of the Gwendo. Like Lennie and Miriam, they are caught in limbo: with the hoped-for cure seemingly years away, their lives remain paused as they wait months, if not years, to recover. We meet the enigmatic Hannah, who imagines her fellow patients to be musical instruments, and quiet, educated Valerie, who is shocked by the whirlwind arrival of Miriam as a roommate. Before too long, another patient arrives: the rebellious, enigmatic American Arthur Persky, who wears odd trousers, listens to odd music, and is determined to throw the Gwendo head-first into the rock ‘n’ roll age.
Most of The Dark Circle is set during 1950, a time notable only for how unnoticed it usually is. We know what comes before – the horrors of WWII – and what follows – the coronation of Elizabeth II – but this precise moment of time rarely takes centre stage when we look back at the 20th Century. Perhaps that is because, as the book vividly depicts, it is an era that is still dominated by the lingering aftermath of war, with its bombsites and its rationing, not to mention traumatic memories of evacuation and the Blitz. This is a period haunted by its recent past, yet lacking in the action that would mark it out as an ‘exciting’ time worthy of remembering today.
An ideal time, then, to focus on the phenomenon of the sanatorium: a place where life stops, and occupants are strongly encouraged to spend their days quietly and peacefully, with as little stimulation as absolutely possible, in order that their tubercular lungs may heal. The patients, as the meekly dominating Dr Limb loves to stress, must learn to be patient.
Dr Limb was a stand-out character for me, because his attitudes seem so very alien to modern ears. For him, tuberculosis is a noble, immortal enemy, something to be respected rather than cured. When discussion turns to a future of preventative measures, of eventually eradicating the disease through X-ray campaigns and antibiotics, he is horrified:
[It] seemed to Gerard Limb [to be] almost blasphemous, for TB was as old as time, at least as old as the human race, and its longevity must be respected. […] The tubercular were often those whose bodies held a more sensitive and discerning mind, convalescence taught them to lie quietly, to read and to think, and this could produce art of the finest quality. Keats had tuberculosis; so did Chopin. It was a distinguished disease […]
Meanwhile, hundreds of his patients continued to suffer from anything from acute, depression-inducing boredom or excrutiating pain, all in the name of his “distinguished disease”. That he could see that suffering and want it to continue, or mourn its eventual demise, is horrifying – all the more so when you imagine that this opinion was most likely shared by his real-life contemporaries. It’s fine if you cough up literal pieces of your own lungs – you might write a nice poem like Keats!
There is so much more I could talk about with this book: the fascinating class crisis that the NHS caused (who’d have thought the middle classes would sign up?!), the LGBT representation, the sad fact that I think this may be the first book I’ve encountered that features British Jewish protagonists. The Dark Circle draws together so many differing strands, and does so effortlessly. Grant’s use of omniscient third person delicately slips between characters, while evoking each of their personalities so brilliantly: Lennie’s cockiness (“He was eighteen. He had slept with three birds already, including the Italian”) differs, subtly but noticeably, from his sister’s self-assurance (“[Miriam] had no experience of educated people, only girls like herself, who liked the same things she liked, hats, hairdos, frocks, how to straighten your own stocking seams from behind by looking in a mirror”).
I was hooked on The Dark Circle from Chapter 1, when Grant deliciously describes Lennie hurling a sandwich in the face of a fascist. It’s magical. My only criticism – and it is a small one – is that I would have preferred the story to have ended before the final few chapters, which make up Part 3. In my opinion, it doesn’t add anything to a story that belongs so perfectly to that forgotten moment in the middle of the 20th Century, when the dying days of rationing and austerity overlapped with the burgeoning excitement of the rock ‘n’ roll era.
The Dark Circle is a wonderful novel, and I’ll definitely be looking out for more of Grant’s work in the future. She’s a brilliant writer, and thoroughly deserves her place on the Bailey’s shortlist.