The Dark Circle by Linda Grant: The dawn of a new, healthier age

Cover imageLinda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party was one of my favourite books of 2014. It was something of a nostalgic read for me, set around the time I was a student with a cast of all too recognisable characters – excruciatingly so in some cases. The Dark Circle is entirely different. Opening in 1949, it follows a handful of tuberculosis patients in a palatial sanatorium at the dawn of the NHS, all of them hopeful that the new treatment rumoured to be on its way to Britain will save them.

En route to an Army medical, eighteen-year-old Lenny Lynskey chucks his chopped fish on rye sandwich at a rabble-rousing anti-Semite. Hearing police sirens, his twin sister Miriam, dashes out of the florists’ where she works and recognises her brother, about to be punched on the nose. Niftily, she knocks his attacker off his feet with a bouquet. When we next meet these two, they’re in an ambulance heading for the Gwendo, a rather posh sanatorium in Kent, both diagnosed with TB. Miriam is sent off for bed rest, lying alongside Valerie, freshly graduated from Oxford, outside on the veranda where they stay – quite literally – for months come rain or snow. Lenny is allowed more freedom, even taking himself off into the woods for an ill-advised walk in his Italian shoes and Teddy Boy drape. Both are fed on a rich diet, cautioned against excitement and subjected to a constant regime of temperature taking. Like everyone else in the Gwendo, they succumb to a mind-numbing boredom. Into this stultifying world strides Arthur Persky, with his rock and roll records and his cockiness. When the longed for streptomycin treatment arrives, which only seven patients will receive, Lenny and Arthur take things into their own hands with shocking results. During the year that Lenny and Miriam have spent at the Gwendo, both their lives have changed irrevocably.

A richly satisfying piece of storytelling peopled with vivid, sharply observed characters, The Dark Circle is also a paean of praise to the NHS. Without the newly introduced health service neither Lenny nor Miriam would have had access either to the dubious therapies of the Gwendo, or to the streptomycin which proved to be the cure that virtually stamped out TB in Britain. Grant effectively explores a more subtle subversion of the status quo through Gwendo’s patients, many of whom are in contact with people of a different class and race for the first time. Lenny’s mind is broadened by his discussions with Valerie about books, quizzing Hannah about how Kafka’s Metamorphosis reads in the original German. In turn Valerie finds herself reassessing her attitude to this ‘hairy Jewish ape’ who turns out to be far more intelligent than her Edgbaston prejudices might have led her to believe. There’s a bright thread of humour running through the novel – Persky’s womanising with his ‘special skills’, passed on to future lovers; Miriam and Valerie’s attempts to find common ground – which lifts it out of its sober context. A thoroughly successful novel, then, the basis for which came from a story told to Grant by a TB survivor. Astonishing as it seems, it turns out that being confined to a bed on a veranda for months, despite freezing conditions, really was considered to be beneficial. Who knows, maybe future generations will look back on chemotherapy with the same level of amazement.

15 thoughts on “The Dark Circle by Linda Grant: The dawn of a new, healthier age”

    1. Thanks, Jacqui. I’ll give it a listen. I found the descriptions of the TB treatment both fascinating and horrifying.

      1. Great review Susan! Got this on the TBR … a subject that’s fascinated me for years as my Dad spent a chunk of his youth in one with TB and having listened to the interview [thanks Jacqui!] fascinated with Linda’s interest on how the NHS put folk from different backgrounds so closely together. I witnessed this first hand when I nursed, especially in the long Nightingale dorm like wards with effectively 22 people from all types of backgrounds sharing a room… it’s a pot of gold to be mined for many a story!

        1. That’s so interesting, Poppy. Did your dad’s experience play a part in your decision to nurse? I thought Grant handled both the broadening and levelling experience of the introduction of the NHS beautifully.

          1. No… it was before we were born and first I knew of it was when we got our TB vaccine at school it cropped up then as I already had a booster shot as a baby. After that it was ‘known’ but rarely talked about. I had the grades to go into medicine but desperate to leave school I chose nursing… biggest influence was Angels & Duffy off Casualty

          2. I think there was a stigma attached to it which seems dreadfully unfair. I’m sure you’ll find the novel fascinating. I wonder how many other nurses ended up do what they do for similar reasons!

  1. This one is most certainly on my TBR list – have you read Joan London’s The Golden Age? (also a story of a TB ward, but this one for children and set in Perth, Australia).

    1. I did, and it came to mind while reading this one – as did One Flew Over the cuckoo’s Nest at one point. If you enjoyed the London I think you’ll also enjoy this one, Kate.

    1. You’re right, it looks very bright and jolly. Looking at it, I’m not entirely sure what it’s supposed to portray! The book’s very positive, despite it’s serious subject, though.

  2. Yours is the second review I’ve read of this book, and both suggest it’s a brilliant read. I like Linda Grant, I like her on a personal level and I like her books. The setting of a sanatorium sounds both fascinating and disturbing. Sounds like one to pick up. Great review, as always.

    1. Thanks, Belinda. It is a fascinating setting and the way that Grant explores the way in which people of a different class and race were thrown together, often for the first time is so interesting. It’s all wrapped up in an expert piece of storytelling, too. I’m sure you’d love it.

    1. Good to hear, Tanya. I can also recommend her memoir about clothes which she always describes so beautifully in her writing. It’s called The Thoughtful Dresser – and if that appeals you might also like The Clothes on Their Backs and her first novel The Cast Iron Shore. I’m a bit of a fan, as you’ve probably gathered!

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