Book review: The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

LINDA GRANT’s novels may be useful to future sociologists seeking to flesh out the details of life at particular times and places in British society. 

Her last book Upstairs at the Party looked at a kind of Brideshead bunch of college chums but transposed from 1940s to 1970s England and the new era of polytechnics. In her latest deep immersion in English society Grant goes back almost as far as Evelyn Waugh’s time and looks at the years immediately after World War II. Not alone is the time very particular but so, too, is the place, a TB sanatorium.

If that sounds like a bleak setting there is a vitality in the writing as a wide spectrum of characters is brought to life. Grant focuses her literary eye on a country in the aftermath of war, licking its wounds. Soldiers returning home — and the country generally — are facing into the depths of the psychic wounds of years of war.

Against this background and atmosphere Grant brings us inside the doors of the Gwendo, a once private institution for the curing and convalescence of the privileged that is now open through the expansion of the NHS to those less fortunate.

That enables our two central characters, East London twins, Lenny and Miriam, to be admitted to the Gwendo. For the 19-year-old streetwise Jewish pair the sanatorium is at once the prospect of incarceration and liberation.

Grant opens her story with a vivid description of Lenny on the streets living on his wits and Miriam working in a flower shop. Not recovering from the early stages of TB they are sent to the countryside to this medical sanctuary in Kent. On the way Miriam wants the taxi driver to stop so that they can buy ice cream knowing that their time in the sanatorium could be long.

When they do arrive it is a world away from the London street scenes that nurtured the twins and gave them their sense of themselves. Their world view is rocked by the TB hospital. They are introduced to a cast of characters with whom they were otherwise unlikely to rub shoulders. There are older better-off characters, a young academic who gets very close to them and an American soldier who erupts into the hospital with the flash and dazzle of a city slicker with a raging sex drive. Some of the older characters bring a verbal and insightful energy for what they lack on the dancefloor.

Late in the story there’s a kind of a narrative adventure in the quest for who will get to benefit from the promise of a new antibiotic available in only very limited quantities. Grant also pushes the story towards its metaphorical possibilities: “And the streptomycin flowed into her arm, into her veins and began to pulse through her blood stream affecting her whole system with its antibiotic properties, inhibiting protein synthesis and acting as a genocidal campaign against bacterial cells. It was as if both first and second world wars were being enacted inside her plump bod, an orgy of death against malign forces.”

Grant is diligent in creating the living, breathing society of post-war England with persuasive characters covering a broad spectrum. Setting a story in a sanatorium is of course a challenge for the drive of any book. But the final section drives on and we get to see the characters beyond the confines of this very particular place and moving beyond the very particular time after the last world war. Grant takes her readers deep into the folds and fault-lines of society and deep into the heart of her characters for a lively, if serious-minded read.

The Dark Circle - Linda Grant, Virago £16.99


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