With the exception of prize shortlist reading, the only books that seem to be grabbing my attention at the moment are those promising cosy escapism. I want to spend my leisure time in a different time, where the problems seem less pressing and the concerns refreshingly removed from those of 2017 England. Based on this premise, ‘The Dark Circle’ by Linda Grant, set nearly entirely within a 1950s TB sanatorium, seemed to be the perfect bridge between my Bailey’s and my comfort reading. Or so I told myself when I started the novel. Of course, this being Linda Grant, nothing is quite that simple, and her novel makes it clear quite how much the past can be seen reflecting and impacting on the present.
Reminding us that we aren’t the first period of Brits to be consumed with discontent, the book begins with a precise evocation of the post-war setting:
London. Big black old place, falling down, hardly any colour apart from a woman’s red hat going into the chemist with her string bag, and if you looked carefully, bottle-green leather shoes on that girl, but mostly grey and beige and black and mud-coloured people with dirty hair and unwashed shirt collars, because everything is short, soap is short, sex is short, and no one on the street is laughing so jokes must be short too. Four years after the war and still everything is up shit creek.
For all the depressing sameness of it all however, there are clear indications that times are a-changing. For a start, when the colourful Lenny and Miriam are diagnosed with TB this no longer means a slow death in the East End slums, but a chance to escape the smog and the rationing through entry to a TB sanatorium down in Kent, recently taken over by the one-year-old NHS and forced to open its doors to non fee-paying patients.
As anyone familiar with such institutions in literature will know, along with the promise of treatment come all kinds of emotional and physical restrictions. From ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ to ‘The Magic Mountain’ we are conditioned to expected frightening controlling staff and disturbingly passive patients. True to its literary roots and to Grant’s exemplary research, the Gwendolyn Downie Memorial Hospital for the Care of Chronic Cases of Tuberculos (‘Gwendo’ for short) is is a nightmarish place. Built to be modern and comfortable, it is nonetheless imbued with the fatalism of its inmates, from the mortally ill Air Force officers to the ‘mothers’ club’ (who even have their own additional rules, number 1 being ‘never give way to self-pity’).
Lenny and Miriam are unusual patients. As well as being ‘common as muck‘ they refuse to join the tradition of accepting, patient patients. It is also clear that they are only part of a change in society that even the insular Gwendo cannot avoid. A sexy American merchant seaman arrives, with a suitcase of hit music, a taste for anarchy and a refusal to be cowed. Meanwhile, in the wider world, there are rumours of a cure for tuberculosis – threatening to bring down the Gwendo from without.
Echoing the way the plot straddles the claustrophobic life within the sanatarium and the new possibilities outside it, the book itself seems to balance precariously between the 1950s and 2017. If there is a hero in the book, it has to be the NHS which in 1957 ‘embarked on one of the greatest public health programmes the country had ever known … the sick – men and women and children who didn’t even know they were ill … were identified, sent off for treatment and the disease was on the verge of complete extinction.‘ Given the current crises in the NHS, this is a timely reminder of how it started and the wonders it has achieved. All that, and a brilliant take on the classic claustrophobic institution narrative. A timely, and extremely engaging, way to round off my Bailey’s shortlist reviews.