Published by Virago on November 3rd 2016
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Source: the Publisher
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.
I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Never think of your life journey as a straight line – always think of it as a circle. That’s Linda Grant’s message behind her latest novel The Dark Circle, as she compellingly connects a struggle against a viscous disease with rebuilding lives in a post war Britain.
It’s 1949, and Britain is still in shock after the war. Rationing still exists, along with suspicions, bigotry, and hatred. Within this mix are Lenny and Miriam Lynskey, Jewish twins full of fight and vigour, desperate to take advantage of anything this new world can provide them. That spirit is soon crushed when it’s discovered (thanks to an Army medical) that Lenny has a serious case of tuberculosis. Along with Miriam, who has a lesser strain of the disease, they are sent packing to a sanatorium in Kent, as part of a new scheme under the newly formed National Health Service. Mixing with the private patients who were previously the only ones able to afford such care, they soon have their eyes opened to the world around them – in spite of their restrictive setting.
This is my first foray in a Linda Grant novel, and I’m now annoyed at myself. Her writing is truly mesmerising and involves you from the first page. Told in a quasi-first person style, we get each character’s perspective on events but as if we are floating above them – we never really see things through their eyes, acting instead as a voyeur, just a millimetre out of reach. While the narrative has that ‘fly-on-the-wall’ sense about it, the language and tone juxtaposes that as it’s searingly realistic. Conversations go from snappy dialogue to morose observations, but at no point does Grant lose any sense of the characters as she guides them on their journeys.
While in the beginning of The Dark Circle Lenny is the principle character of the twins, it is Miriam that truly shines here. Artistic and feisty, but easily impressed, Miriam would be making the most of the new decadent 1950’s were it not for her incarceration. Obsessed with Hollywood stars and all their trappings, she’s caught up in the activities of Arthur Perskey, and American Navy man who’s determined to shake up the hospital. Here is a young woman who, despite her ailments, wants to live and live loud, and Grant writes Miriam with the ‘f*ck you’ attitude from beginning to end.
Lenny, on the other hand, loses more of himself during his treatment. Once a young man of sharp-suits, cons, and quick wits, he soon gets into a comfortable routine of cardigans and double helpings of puddings, not only altering his appearance, but his mind-set too. Like Miriam he is given a wake-up call by Arthur and soon realises that he isn’t drifting into middle-age, but is a young man of possibilities.
While this is a character driven novel for the most part, The Dark Circle is as much of a historical piece of work as it is fictional. If your knowledge of mid-century medicine or healthcare is limited, then some of the treatments may come as a shock to you. Nowadays, there’s no way we’d leave patients outside in the cold 24/7 or collapse a lung with the same cavalier attitude you’d attach to extracting a tooth. While at times, Grant’s depictions seem horrific, she has clearly done her research, bringing a stark authenticity to her story. These two aspects of The Dark Circle bring out it’s only real failing – there isn’t much of a plot. While the antics of the hospital residents are enough to keep the pages turning, there’s really only one cataclysmic event about two-thirds of the way through the book that could be called anything approaching a plot point. Although this isn’t always a bad thing, it did cause the book to drag slightly for me at the half-way point.
What it lacks in plot, The Dark Circle certainly makes up for in atmosphere. From the streets of London teaming with life, protest, and action, to the quiet village life of the Kent countryside, Grant ticks all the boxes. As the patients are forced through their situation to mingle and cohabit, while waiting on a miracle drug that is sure to save them, the atmosphere changes from one of desperation mixed with resignation, to one of hope and possibility.
Grant certainly doesn’t play the ‘predictable’ card when it comes to the fate of her characters, and the novel ends wonderfully with a glimpse of an older Miriam, still yelling her lungs out to anyone who’ll listen. As an allegory for the ‘trudge’ of life and the unexpected things it throws at you, TB could’ve been a poor choice, but in Grant’s able hands it becomes a beautiful ode to freedom and possibilty.