The Dark Circle by Linda Grant – review

Published by Virago

Publication date – 3 November 2016

Source – review copy

“The new novel by the acclaimed author of Upstairs at the Party and the Booker-shortlisted The Clothes on Their Backs.

The Second World War is over, a new decade is beginning but for an East End teenage brother and sister living on the edge of the law, life has been suspended. Sent away to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Kent to learn the way of the patient, they find themselves in the company of army and air force officers, a car salesman, a young university graduate, a mysterious German woman, a member of the aristocracy and an American merchant seaman. They discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched.”

Twins Lenny and Miriam are shocked to discover they have both contracted Tuberculosis. Whisked away to a sanatorium in the Kent countryside, they soon find themselves mixing with people they would never normally be associated with. They bring with them a rebelliousness, one which they discover may not be what sees them through their stay in the Gwendo, but which may have a lasting effect on themselves and their fellow patients.

Don’t read this book expecting a happy story. It is quite a dark tale, the claustrophobia and intuitionalism of the sanatorium hanging heavy over the story. The early treatment of TB was often barbaric and Linda Grant’s narrative made it all too easy to imagine the distress and pain the patients went through. The story is peppered with light moments, the slight rebellions of the characters, some which caused less ripples on the surface than others.

There are a variety of characters, each unique, showing that the terrible illness crossed social boundaries, was indiscriminate with those it infected. Linda Grant’s characterisation meant that each was well drawn, bringing their own slant to the story. Lenny and Miriam were not particularly likeable, at least at first. They are quite selfish characters, thinking only of what betters their own lives and quite condensing and dismissive of others who are different to them.  As their stay in the sanatorium grew, so did their characters, Lenny becoming less gregarious and more thoughtful, Miriam stepping out somewhat from behind her twin’s shadow. This is very much a character driven piece, a study in how the fledgling NHS started to work away at social boundaries and class divide and though set in the 50s, echoes some of the political and social climate of today.

There are echoes of a prison to the sanatorium and indeed many of the patients refer to themselves as inmates, and become institutionalised. There is little freedom for the patients. The fitter of them can attend the local village but most are ordered to remain in bed, sleeping outside in the cold or shut away from the outside world. It is this sense of imprisonment, of control by others that leads some of the characters to rebel, to upset the status quo in order to survive, both physically and mentally.

The Dark Circle of the novel’s title can be many things. It is the scars on the lungs of the tuberculosis sufferers. It is the circle created by those patients not chosen for the innovative cure. It is the ripple left by the rebellious actions of the patients and the condescending view of the new National Health service by others. It is the group of survivors from the sanatorium, forever bound together by their time in the Gwendo.

I did read this in two parts, with a gap between the second reading, but I am glad I picked up the book again. This is not an easy read, nor is it light entertainment. It is however a well written, intriguing and thought-provoking tale.

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