Linda 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.