The Dark Circle, Linda GrantI’ve read
several books by Linda Grant, starting with The Clothes on Their Backs
, which I liked. There’s a lot of publicity already for The Dark Circle
and I can see why the publishers have high expectations for it. The book begins in post-war London with Jewish twins Lenny and Miriam about to start adult life in the new world. But fate has other ideas. When Lenny takes a medical test for his National Service, he’s found to have TB and he and Miriam are packed off to ‘the Gwendo’, a sanatorium in Kent. City-bred, they hate the country. The sanatorium is run on traditional lines: bed rest, open air treatment (beds outside even in the snow) for some, hobbies for those able to walk about. Being a patient is a full time job. The director thinks of people ‘learning to be’ patients. It’s very easy to become institutionalised.
Lenny is not the type to knuckle under and nor is the young American who makes a sensational entry. While Lenny is one of the walkers, Miriam is put out on the verandah where she meets an educated young woman, a type she’s never met before. As a result she and Lenny actually start reading real books for the first time and an unlikely friendship develops between the three.
A theme of the book is that TB is out of date in the twentieth century. I like this:
‘She had been maimed by an illness that was so far out of fashion it might have been a wartime recipe for pink blancmange made from cornflour when everyone these days ate real chocolate mousse and tiramisu. TB was spam fritters and two-bar electric fires and mangles and string bags and French knitting and a Bakelite phone in a freezing hall and loose tea and margarine and the black of the newspaper coming off on your fingers and milk in glass bottles and books from Boots Lending library with a hole in the spine where they put the ticket, and doilies and antimacassars and the wireless tuned to the Light Programme. It was outside lavatories and condensation and slum dwellings and no supermarkets. It was tuberculosis, which had died with the end of people drinking nerve tonics and Horlicks.’
Because there may be a way out and it’s called Streptomycin. Unfortunately, as with some cancer drugs today, it’s in short supply, expensive and doesn’t work for everyone. It’s for the director to decide who will be guinea pigs; potentially, whether a patient will live or die. It’s a tribute to the character development in the book that I was hoping that Lenny, Miriam and their best friends would survive the illness and the book. There is a shock development, but no spoilers here. This is very well worth reading, for the characters and for the well-researched account of the effects of TB a mere sixty or seventy years ago. This may be the best of Linda Grant’s books I’ve read.The Dark Circle
will be published by Virago on 3rd November and I read it courtesy of the publishers and NetGalley( Winter, The Descent of Man )