The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women in English from throughout the world.
In this series of articles we will look at each of the six shortlisted titles in detail, but you can also see an overview of the full shortlist.
The Dark Circle
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. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, they are sent away to a sanatorium, where 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. Trapped in this sterile, closed environment, with a host of extraordinary characters, they find that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched.
About the author
Linda Grant was born in Liverpool and now lives in London. The Cast Iron Shore won the David Higham First Novel Prize. When I Lived in Modern Times won the 2000 Orange Prize for Fiction. Still Here was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Linda Grant is also the author of Sexing the Millennium; Remind Me Who I am Again; The People on the Street, which won the Lettre Ulysses Prize for Literary Reportage; and The Thoughtful Dresser. The Clothes on Their Backs, won The South Bank Show Literature Award, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008 and longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction.
Have you read The Dark Circle? Do you want to know what other readers thought? You can leave a review, read a review or add the book to your group’s reading list.
What our readers thought
12 of our brilliant reading groups have been shadowing the Prize this year, alongside three dedicated Library Ambassadors. Here are some of their experiences:
Whitegrove Library Book Club
“Perfect weather conditions meant that our group was able to bask in the sun and discuss the considerable power of The Dark Circle. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the cars and the late Twentieth Century buildings beside us, we would have been convinced we were in Kent of the early 1950s.
We all found it deeply moving, not least because some of us knew friends and relatives, who had TB in the novel’s era and we reflected on having TB tests at school. We agreed that it highlighting an illness a great many British people had at this time was important. We felt it would educate some younger readers, who might not have known of its prevalence.
We found the characters well drawn and the measure of the writing is that we had different relationships with the characters. For example, some saw good in Dr Limb, while others were baffled by his actions. We admired the post war determination of Miriam and Lenny, while empathising with the characters who were lost in the new world.
A great talking point was of the divisions of class and how the NHS bridged the schism in treatment but unsettled the status quo of some of the richer patients and staff at the Gwendo. We discussed the slowness of the new treatment becoming available and even then, how scarce it was. We reflected how rationing was even greater than in the war and some of us had first-hand experience of this time.
We were drawn into the patients’ struggle; we were amazed at the patience they really needed. The soldiers were used to the mundane monotony and even thrived on it; equally, we were amazed that someone would wish to be there, even without an illness. However, it was not without its humour and one of us could relate to the style and then state of Lenny’s shoes, after his first venture out of the Gwendo. We also found Miriam’s reaction to Pride and Prejudice hilarious.
We saw that there were interesting contrasts including; class, treatment, the old and new world, London and Kent, separation from the outside world, the benign and belligerent patients. One of us loved the references to her home county, Kent.
We were impressed with Linda Grant’s attention to detail and how it not only evoked the era but made it live. We all agreed that this was a poignant yet remarkable book and how it would be a worthy winner of the Baileys Prize. We conveyed how enjoyable this process has been and a pleasure to work with CiS Readers as part of #TeamCircle! Roll on the announcement!"
“The CiS Readers, liking to do things properly, wrote a list of positive and negative aspects of this contender for the Baileys Prize. We were pleased to see that there were more positives on the list than negatives, and also that things we had considered negatives, could be considered positives in disguise.
Having been reading together for over four years as a group, we’ve suffered many a difficult book – boring, crass, incomprehensible, frustrating…but thankfully this book was none of these things. Well written and interesting, if not totally compelling, the novel was thoroughly diverting.
Our favourite thing about this book was the setting, which physically and socially unfolded before our eyes. We welcomed the way that a cross section of society was represented in the sanatorium, and they were forced to ‘rub along’ in an almost ‘big brother’ fashion. They also have to learn to live with their disease, which they manage with varying degrees of patience. The social concerns raised, particularly around the NHS, here in its earliest days, we found particularly relevant to today’s society. It is comforting to be able to look back and see how far we have come, but also see how much more could be done.
The dark circles of the illness – tuberculosis or consumption – that has been romanticised in Victorian fiction, is here treated for what it is; a horrible and painful illness that ruins peoples lives – far better to be knocked out by a falling cistern than cough your lungs up in sections over the course of years of suffering. We felt refreshed by this treatment of the disease, and that the descriptions of the illness and its deterioration were well done. On the whole we felt that the novel was well crafted (give or take some laboured Formica setting the scene…) and had enough light moments of balance the darkness of the disease and confinement.
We felt that the last two sections, once the characters had left the sanatorium, did not have the same vividness that the first (and largest) section had. The end felt a bit rushed, and we felt that Grant had lain enough clues for us to have a good idea what would happen in the future, without needing to spell it out for us. Having said that, we did appreciate the scenes when Lenny and Miriam separately returned to the sanatorium, and were able to witness its decay. There was a sense of completion that they are able to witness the crumbling of the building that had been the venue for their own crumbling health."