I’ve had a copy of Linda Grant’s most recent novel “The Dark Circle” on my shelf since it was published in November, but for whatever reason I didn’t get to reading it despite being extremely moved by her previous novel “Upstairs at the Party.” So I was delighted to find it on the Baileys Prize shortlist as it gave me a great excuse to get it down and finally read it. Although this novel is very different from her previous one I was immediately drawn in by the eloquence of Grant’s prose with its excellent witty dialogue and vibrant characters. The story concerns a brother and sister (Lenny and Miriam) in 1950s London who contract tuberculosis. The city and social environment are vividly rendered where the continued deprivation of the war and effects of the bombings are still intensely felt. A very different scene is evoked when the pair are taken to a sanatorium in Kent which was once an exclusive facility for the privileged but it’s now taking in patients under the new national health care system. This creates an intermingling of people from all walks of life who are plagued by this illness and pining for a rumoured miracle cure. The result is a spectacular evocation of the passage of time and changing values through the lives of several fascinating characters.
The medical facility that's purportedly for recuperation feels like a truly stultifying environment. Patients are encouraged to be as inactive as possible to prevent themselves from getting too excited. They are prescribed to take in fresh, bracing air so many are set out on a veranda in the freezing cold weather. Most terrifying of all is an upper floor of children confined to their rooms and put in straight jackets if they become too active. Whilst purportedly giving their bodies a rest their minds rot from lack of stimulation. Yet, some of the patients form special connections based around interests like literature and music. There's a particularly forceful American character Arthur Persky who introduces an element of chaos into the strictly ordered facility. Gradually the stories of their particular backgrounds unfold amidst these interactions. New arrivals Lenny and Miriam are looked down upon as London working class Jewish people by some of the medical staff such as the terrifyingly named Dr. Limb. He feels that “the government had opened the door of the slums. It was difficult to be discerning about such an undifferentiated mass of humanity.” That there were such classist opinions about socialized health care in the early years of the system seems particularly striking when thinking about recent debates about funding for the NHS.
One of the most poignant stories in the novel is about a mysterious German patient named Hannah. She's someone who survived the horrors of war and brutal confinement only to find herself trapped within another institution with a terminal illness. Luckily she has a lover named Sarah who works for the BBC and exerts her influence to get a preciously rare experimental drug to Hannah. This sets in motion a chain of events which puts governmental scrutiny on how the facility is run. It was surprising and wonderful to find a lesbian love story at the centre of this novel. This is handled really sensitively where both women show a savviness to live how they want despite the prejudices of the time. They have a steadfast faith that “the new reality would emerge. It wasn’t a dream.”
Grant has a fascinating way of writing a historical novel that is conscious of future developments. During the narrative she'll sometimes refer to future novels that will be written or events that are simultaneously happening elsewhere which the characters can't know anything about. This creates a compellingly rounded view of history and a hopeful tone for how civilization is progressing despite the provincial attitudes of some people in the institution. It also lays the groundwork for the later parts of the novel which skip forward into the future at a point where the horrors of tuberculosis have largely been forgotten. It's skilful how Grant does this while also faithfully and vividly rendering a feeling for the 1950s milieu with its misguided medical practices and rumblings of anti-semitic attitudes. Individuals are forced to take drastic action to help themselves in some really dramatic and arresting moments. Certain scenes are described so sharply that they are particularly memorable. For instance, the grim way Lenny and Miriam's father died is something that I'll never forget. “The Dark Circle” is a gripping and finely detailed story.