Former Orange Prize for Fiction Prizewinner (2000) Linda Grant’s seventh novel is set largely in a TB sanatorium in post-war Britain. East End Jewish twins Lenny and Miriam find themselves having to put their lives on hold when his national service medical leads to them both being diagnosed with the disease. The embryonic NHS gives them the opportunity to recuperate in the country in a former private hospital in Kent.
This is the tale of those who found themselves in the Gwendolyn Downie Hospital. It is a tale of torturous treatments, sleeping outside for maximum fresh air, complete bed rest, punctured lungs and the other limited methods of providing relief. There are rumours of a wonder drug, streptomycin, which the patients believe will bring an immediate cure. It’s very much Britain on the threshold of the modern age and everyone anticipates change.
Grant’s strength is in characterisation. She brings together a group of characters of different ages, gender and class backgrounds which would have, until this point in history with the NHS’s influence, rarely spent much time together. The sense of camaraderie between those who have nothing to do but get better comes across well.
With the slightly larger than life Lenny and Miriam at the centre there’s actually a lot of fun for the reader despite the grimness of the subject. True, there is the disbelief and outrage at some of the treatments which seem barbaric nowadays but there’s hope as the narrator lets us know what is coming in the form of effective antibiotics and the BCG injection.
Taking the main characters beyond the confines of the hospital in the second section did not work so well for me but overall I was very impressed with this book and its depiction of a time, although not that long ago, feels very much like a distant age because of medical progress.
The Dark Circle is published by Virago on November 3rd. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for my advance review copy.