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.

Miriam is a fan of films and movie stars. She particularly admires the beauty of Linda Darnell in 'Forever Amber'

Miriam is a fan of films and movie stars. She particularly admires the beauty of Linda Darnell in 'Forever Amber'

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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLinda Grant
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Towards the end of Linda Grant’s new novel, the narrator Adele asks her friend “How do we get people so wrong… when we are so intensely curious about them?” This is the question which seems to have plagued her entire life after losing her friend Evie while at university. There is a central mystery which is literally about what really happened to Evie upstairs after the narrator’s birthday party on one fateful night. Adele pieces together what might have occurred through meeting with various people involved when she is an adult. But more than this is the question at the heart of this novel of trying to understand Evie’s essential being and how Adele’s love and fascination for her friend can’t be put to rest because she will always remain obscured by the narrative of history. In this way the novel resonates with how our consciousness attaches itself to certain individuals we fall in love with. There is a wonderment to them which grips our imagination. We want to assimilate aspects of their identity to our own, know everything about them, revel in their contradictions and make their story a part of our own individual narratives.

The novel is moreover a coming of age story about how Adele learns early on certain life lessons from her fascinating con-artist father and his flamboyant gay artist friend Yankel Fishoff. Although the father’s story is a tragic one, it has the vivid excitement and delinquent pleasure I felt when reading Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “My Heart Laid Bare” about a family of con-artists. Adele understands from her father and Yankel that you have to craft a story about yourself and decorate your identity if you are going to stand out and get what you want from life. But she also learns certain things, specifically to do with gender that she will later question: “From my father I learned that when men were around there was more of everything, more luxury and abundance, and that women had to learn forbearance in the face of their big appetites, and manage the domestic economy.” These gender roles are ripe for dissection and the formation of a self-consciously feminist movement which Adele witnesses at university.

When Adele arrives there she really asserts herself as an individual, but only as a sort of transparency through which we learn of the colourful people she befriends and encounters. As readers our knowledge of how Adele appears from the outside comes from reactions by friends later in her life who recount that Adele was always slightly removed picking at the rips in her jeans, rather intimidating and haughty. Grant acknowledges that identity is never something stable and “That is what we are, reflections of reflections. We think all the time about what we sound like and how we appear.” We try to project a certain image of how we want to be perceived and simultaneously other people perceive us as something else. The two perspectives are not often in sync.

At the newish (un-named) university the administration’s “plan was to defeat ideology with a quiet, humane liberalism of human right, equality and a spirit of public service.” However, she and her friends spend this formative period of 1970s Britain exploring evolving ideologies as they collectively discuss and appropriate kinds of feminism, Trotskyism, homosexuality and Freudian ideas. It’s a period of intellectual fervour and inventive experimentation which the narrator later claims to be “a now-discredited decade.” Yet the passion and excitement of the group of intelligent individuals described groping their way through this jungle of ideas makes them all really come alive.

The next two sections of the novel take us into Adele’s adult life where she lingers on reflections about university, uncovering what happened to her friend Evie and catching up with how her companions turned out. Some of her friends hold fast to the principles formulated during that vital time of young adulthood and others find themselves turning completely against what they once so fervently stood for. Adele’s personality asserts itself as she carries on a tumultuous and doomed affair with Evie’s brother. Although she knows it’s an insensible coupling she makes the beautiful observation that “You can be completely axed to the ground by love, that’s the only explanation. You’re down to your roots.” Later on, her blunt observations about motherhood give witness to what aren’t often acknowledged emotions: “Having a child pushed me sheer away from the centre of my own life into a corner of it and I resented it. I was outraged.” It’s a sharp observation about the indignation a woman can feel at having to sacrifice certain freedoms to take on the identity of being a mother. Rather than offer a neat account of life’s cycle, we are aware that Adele is a person in active rebellion against it and all the loose ends life leaves. What comes through in Grant’s narrative is a sincere desire to understand - not compose a traditional story arch. Rather, the themes “Upstairs at the Party” explores percolate in the background as the narrator gropes for truth through a retrospective survey of what is the noisy train-rattle and messy pile-up of life.  

For instance, during the university years Evie confesses that her mother was once raped. The information is met with an almost stunned silence from the other girls. The story of the mother’s rape is presented more fully later in the novel. This time the truth of it is seen through the lens of history as if the fact of it was too much of an aberration for them to take in at that early tender age – despite their active desire for women to have an unimpeded truth-telling voice. Adele tracks down a diary account of the rape which is initially transcribed, but which Adele then interrupts and summarizes. She does this for practical purposes to cut out superfluous detail, but also to be able to state plainly what happened where the mother couldn’t bring herself to articulate the stark injustice of what was done to her. The reader is made aware of the way the mother’s stifled voice later impacted her daughter and the way stories can be skewed by the values of the time period in which they are told. 

This is a novel concerned with the nature of story telling – all the inventive power, overriding pleasure and sly danger of it. In recounting the accumulation of details about her own life Adele finds that “A story was building and as with all stories, it was better in the telling than the living.” As narrator, she is in the position to tell it like she saw it and uncover what happened by interviewing those involved, but filter the details through her own system of values. Although she seems to be striving for some kind of transparency Grant reminds us “That is the power of stories, never forget: they make the truth.” One such story that is evidently imbued with Adele’s own values is when she relates how her friend Bobby died from having Aids. While mourning his loss she observes: “There had to have been a point, when everyone knew about Aids, when he could have said, ‘Stop, enough.’” She is angry that he didn’t change his sexual behaviour or take as many precautions as were necessary to protect himself from contracting the disease. This judgement rides dangerously close to inhibiting Bobby’s personal freedom and doesn’t engage with the complicated sexual politics that surround the advent of Aids. As well as wanting him to have lived a full healthy life, she wanted the narrative of her life to include him. Bobby’s choice to take certain risks over-ruled her ability to carry on her story with him in it. From Adele’s perspective, all that Bobby demonstrated in his actions were recklessness. I’m guessing Bobby wouldn’t have seen it that way.

Grant’s writing is a pleasure to read because it can be so focused and precise. She has an excellent ability to sum up complicated concepts in short pithy sentences. For instance, she writes “And we are animals with the heads of men.” This instantly conjures ideas about how we are really ruled by baser instincts although we always feign an image of civility. At other times her descriptive powers cast images in the mind that are strikingly vivid and gruesome: “Some people have a smile like a watermelon slice.” Sometimes the plain truth of her writing speaks so much more about the complicated dynamics of relationships than any specific story ever could: “The back of the head of someone you have slept with is one of the most familiar parts of their body.” The author has a talented ability for wielding language to create poignant flashes of recognition in the reader’s mind. It’s interesting that the author frames the novel as having been inspired by a particular time in her own life, yet didn’t want to compose an autobiographical account. I suspect that this is because Grant probably shares the sentiments of her narrator who states “I do not care for the current fad for misery memoirs. I don’t want to hear about your hard times.” By creating a great work of fiction, Grant is also able to artfully construct a tale open to an expansive sense of understanding and many interpretations that nonfiction doesn’t necessarily allow. “Upstairs at the Party” is the kind of novel where you want to flip back to the first page once you’ve finished the last in order to discover what layers of meaning you might have missed on the first time around.

 

Virago Press have created a fun Pinterest board of images inspired by quotes and themes from the novel: http://www.pinterest.com/littlebrownuk/upstairs-at-the-party/

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLinda Grant
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