The Dark Circle: Shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2017
By Linda Grant
The new novel by the acclaimed author of Upstairs at the Party and the Booker-shortlisted The Clothes on Their Backs.Tweet
I loved this book. It's set mostly in a TB hospital in 1949 where we go with teenage twins Lenny and Miriam. We meet a host of others and the characters are great: vividly drawn and highly entertaining as they endure the horrors of their treatment and I know a whole lot more about TB and its treatment now than I did before I started. I enjoyed the second and third parts of the book just as much though, where we follow the main characters out of the sanitarium and into their lives and then on into old age. I thought it was a great book; interesting, informative, entertaining, touching and horrifying.
Whitegrove Book Club’s Review of ‘The Dark Circle’ #TeamCircle
The opening of the novel sets the scene with a bus ride that hooks me to a journey I’m reluctant to alight.
I felt I was transported into 1949, experiencing the bustle, the sights and sounds of London. Somehow, through the expertise of the author, I was an onlooker at Trafalgar Square, during Lenny’s altercation and later, a customer sensing the smell of flowers at Miriam’s shop. Further on, I felt the sense of trepidation of the twins as they are taken to the sanatorium for the first time. Their sense of fear and that of the existing patients is almost tangible. Does the Glendo have solid foundations or is it built on sand; a Shangri-La of hope, cure and trust?
Linda Grant’s description of the Glendolyn Downie Memorial Hospital is insightful. The vision that the building and its grounds would be a palace, a panacea, a haven and cure for people of the building is remarkable. Was a continuation of the modern day spa that was so popular in the Nineteenth Century?
The book is partly a social commentary on changing times. Its greatness lies in the nuances and feelings characters convey towards other patients, who differ because of class, education, politics, place and social standing. It is sad to know that it is not just the matron who is unimpressed about the siblings and others’ arrival at the hospital, via the National Heath Service and what she sees as encroaching upon the richer patients’ right to be there. It’s uplifting in that some like Miriam and Valerie bridge the gap of understanding.
Anti-Semitism is shown to exist in the florist’s and in Valerie’s parents: the best books ask us questions of society; of us as individuals. The Dark Circle has an arrow-like accuracy in doing this. Hannah, herself says about meanings of books,
“You experience it in your own way, it’s a labyrinth you must pass through but the labyrinth is yourself”.
I’m sure Linda Grant was meticulous in describing events, social attitudes, fashion of the time but these facts and feelings are used sparingly and only add to the pace of the book. Sometimes she teases us by offering a glimpse of the future as in the emergence of the South Bank during the Festival of Britain.
The book shows us many contrasts: the old versus new world; urban and country life; incarceration (through war or illness) versus freedom; socialism versus consumerism; the shifts in music, gender and sexuality. The pivotal theme of the novel to me was pronounced by Lenny,
“He felt ready to play-act the everyday life of a normal healthy person because the schism between Lenny ill and Lenny well was killing him”.
The narrative was full of life, well-paced and informed. One of the few passages I thought the exposition of a character was artificial happened between Persky and Mrs Kitson at the cottage, where she delivers her backstory a little too comprehensively. However, it is the measure of the book that this stood out; the rest of the novel seemed to convey reality precisely (or perhaps imprecisely). I like how the book is constantly busy: how great that we learn about the advent of television, Parliament, fashion and housing within the space of one chapter.
Of course, tuberculosis is a central theme: how people coped with its effects; treatments and hoped for the latest antidotes at the time. ‘The Dark Circle’ is an important document to show the prevalence of the disease and the bureaucracy and challenges in delivering the antidote in streptomycin and PAS pills.
‘The Dark Circle’ is extremely moving, funny and evocative of the past. It is an exceptional book on many levels, not least for telling us about the present and a guide to the future.
“The Dark Circle,” gives an extremely moving and memorable portrayal of the terrible impact that TB had on all aspects of its sufferers’ lives immediately prior to the discovery of drugs that would finally both cure and prevent the spread of the disease. It is a must read for anyone wishing to get an insight into the amazing transformation of British society brought about by the establishment of the NHS. But even more than this, it is story of human courage, endurance and also a study of human frailty. The best of the characters show an unrelenting determination to maintain personal dignity and identity in their battle against the odds for survival. The worst among them manipulate everything to their own advantage.
The individual stories of the patients and staff of the Gwendo sanatorium unfold with a sensitivity which the author never allows to lapse into sickly sentimentality. For me the most endearing character is feisty and irrepressible Miriam. Her no nonsense approach to life is captured brilliantly in her wonderfully comedic reaction to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” “Them girls should get bleeding jobs instead of hanging around fluttering their eyelashes at rich fellers,” page 115. Miriam, indefatigably proud and resilient, never allows herself to be beaten by the prejudices she meets both as a Jewish immigrant and disabled person. Outwardly perhaps the most scarred survivor, she retains an inner strength and sense of self- worth that few others could hope to attain.
A key theme in the novel is the impact of separation. Time in the Gwendo tested or brought to an abrupt end old family ties and relationships. But it also forged unlikely, but enduring new relationships - the “dark circle” A pivotal character within this tightknit group is Miriam’s twin, Lenny. He shares Miriam’s tenacious love of life and gritty determination. His tragedy is that in loving his twin “too much” he dared to take a risk that condemned her for ever to a world of silence. But at the same time it is his strong love for Valerie that enables her to recover from the worst of the physical and mental scars that Dr Limb had inflicted on her.
Dr Limb is the character I find most troublesome and difficult to understand. Was there nothing more to him an insatiable desire to control his patients? “To get better you must learn obedience, you must surrender to our will, completely and absolutely,” page 61. Not only were some of the more extreme treatments shocking in their sheer brutality, but he chose to inflict the worst of these on Valerie, the one patient for whom he had feelings that went beyond professional concern. What a contrast his love was to that of Lenny. Yet the portrayal of the doctor’s struggle to make the impossibly difficult selection of patients for the trial left me feeling some sympathy even for him, heightened when I later read of his suicide.
This and other impossible questions and dilemmas give the novel a very convincing sense of realism. Just as in life, there are no neatly tied ends. So too even the most selfish characters, for example “out for himself“ Persky, have some redeeming qualities and I can certainly understand why, in spite of everything, Miriam retained a special place for him in her heart.
It was a bit of a god-incidence that I happened to catch a virus while reading this book, very chesty and congested so I took comfort in the details of the sanatorium and then slowly I became drawn in and have befriended the main characters and I am keen to see how the plot develops. Also, being a Kentish lass I love the references to Kent, the place names and the descriptions of Kent countryside.
This is a story that I found fascinating because I lived through those post war years. I found it convincingly written with interesting characters and an original subject. Working in a pharmacy and having a relative with TB I remember the excitement when streptomycin became available.
More general reviews from our discussions and two meeting and in discussions:
One of our members said how real every character and situation is; this is a novel that he has lived. We all have memories or shared memories of people with the central illness and all agree how precise Linda Grant is in describing the early 1950s.
For some of us it was the memory of the BCG vaccination. Yes, we proudly wear the scars! One of us had immunity to the test dose on the wrist which puzzled people enough to X-ray him. He didn’t have the disease.
We loved the characters. Miriam is lovely. Both twins are feisty and engaging and the Officer’s Mess is alive in our minds. Nicola like how the soldiers called the Mess club found it easy to submit as they were used to taking orders.
We felt that the book was triumphant in its portrayal of mundane life in a sanatorium where the most exciting thing was having your temperature taken. No wonder walking to the pub or a day at the races became so important – anything to liven up life. We felt for Lenny how guilty he must feel about Miriam’s deterioration after taking her out for a day. We loved how at first this rough young brother and sister pair shook up the peace of the sanatorium but soon succumbed to the tedium of the place and the disease. We were shocked by the cold air treatment being out in beds on the balcony in all weathers.
We tried thinking about what it must have been like living through the war and not knowing when it would end of if we would be invaded like Guernsey.
The amount of anti-Semitism surprised us. One of us grew up in Liverpool and there was such a diverse mix of people that everybody just got on. We discussed how the florist thought her customers weren’t anti-Semitic but Miriam should adopt a less Hebrew name for work, anyway.
Dr Sim was a strange character and his speech about submitting and giving in to the medical advice stood out for some. A description that was discussed was about the art teacher who at 34 was “entirely middle aged”. One of us had shoes like Lenny’s that looked fashionable but fell apart at the first sign of English weather. Equally, we surmised why Lady Anne was institutionalised? Was the alternative not an option or did she face some other challenge?
Before the antidote, the treatments seemed antiquated. Some found reading the collapsed lung procedure difficult to read and imagine.
We all agreed how the book was well-pitched and great in recounting the start of the NHS. Our members, who could remember the era and the prevalence of the illness, agreed the authenticity of the writing was remarkable. This book has become one of the top books we’ve ever read as a group. Therefore, we all agree that it easily justifies itself as one of Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction’s great novels.
Whitegrove Library Book Club
The Dark Circle is a compelling read.
It tells us the story of twin siblings Lenny and Miriam Lynskey, who are diagnosed with tuberculosis and shuttled to a sanitarium in Kent where they are subject to idle days and wondering if they'll fall victim to a diseases that's traditionally fatal. The year is 1949 and the NHS is standing shakily tall in it's shiny new glory. The story weaves around this inner circle of patients, people who would have never met normally, due to various issues of racism, class and circumstances, but in the book they form relationships that seem to cross all borders.
I sometimes felt that the narrative was a bit slightly too earnest in it's way that we must help everyone, every way we can. Not something that I disagree with, that I felt the point was made a a few too many times. But this is nothing to quibble about really.
Ultimately The Dark Circle is a thoughtful and well-written book: funny and revealing, it is a novel about what it means to treat people how you wish to be treated.
The world of the sanatorium was made so real by the beautiful descriptive writing in the Dark Circle. I really felt I stepped vividly into Lenny and Miriam’s experience. Although at sometimes a painful and uncomfortable read (collapsed lungs and rib removal!) I felt I learned a lot from the dark circle.
It is also made for some great discussions with our book group about the NHS, healthcare, current politics and I enjoyed the sharp humour that popped up every so often with some great lines!
Set in the 1950's, The Dark Circle provides an interesting insight to this postwar decade. Choosing to place the characters in a sanitorium for TB patients where everyone, no matter their class, gender or religion, experiences the same pain, fear and treatment, was an inspired way to
highlight the issues of this
'brace new world'.
I would have liked more time with the central characters, the twins, before their arrival at the sanitorium. However, the main section of the novel
presents a wholly unromantised view of this illness and the barbaric treatments patients had to endure. The development of unlikely friendships and
relationships within this social 'bubble' occasionally provides some welcome humour in an otherwise somewhat bleak landscape.
Perhaps too much
emphasis was placed on the post-sanitorium lives of the characters, although I enjoyed the return visits made to the decaying building.
This is a well crafted and
very readable book. It is
thought provoking and will be enjoyed by reading groups as it embraces so many historical and contemporary issues.
I have to admit that if you suggested to me to read a book on TB, sent in 1950s Kent I would probably smile and politely decline! However, I read this in my reading group (CiS, Edinburgh), following the Bailey's Women's Prize For Fiction and I am pleased to say I enjoyed it. Coincidently I had a bit of a chesty cold whilst I read it and I think this added an extra dimension to my reading experience and my ability to relate to the characters!
It is an interesting period study on the approach to managing/curing TB. It is based in a kind of 'Big Brother House' style of sanatorium: various people from different walks of life are thrown together - some mix well, make surprising friends and grow from the experience; others do not. It is also an interesting study on pain management and the different ways people cope with ill health. Would I be someone to kick against the authorities? Or would I give in to the 'system' and the doctors immediately? And who is to say which would be the better approach for my health. I liked the last section especially - the reflections on how their time in the sanatorium impacted on the central characters' lives. This for me closed the dark circle well.
I found the swear words (used as part of the characterisation of Miriam and Lenny) a little jarring. Also, some of the other characters were not as well drawn and I wonder if they could have been mentioned but there be even more of a focus given to the central three or four to fill them out even more?
A world opened to me through reading The Dark Circle - a good read indeed.
A fascinating and timely story that handles a dark subject matter via the lives of a host of colourful characters.
Set in the late 1940s-early 1950s, it tackles social history in a relatable way, examining the huge shift in the traditional class structure in Britain at that time. Just as illness does not discriminate based on wealth, so the novel examines the birth of the NHS and the free and equal access to treatment it opened up for those from the working class. Read now, against a backdrop of political turmoil and the possible destruction of the NHS, the narrative was all the more poignant: as the characters have to hope that their name will be chosen in the lottery for the miracle cure for their TB, so now the health service struggles at times to treat everyone equally depending not on what they earn, but where they live.
The book squeezes in so many characters, yet as a reader we know all about them; their background, quirks and how they arrived at the sanatorium. Some characters are likeable; others less so, but still we care about their fate.
The final section of the book is perhaps unnecessary; the story is so descriptive and vivid that you might have preferred to imagine how the main protagonists lives went post-sanatorium, without it being spelled out.
That said, it's a quick read that leaves you with lots to think about after the final page has been turned.
Dark Circle is a very readable, interesting story. With the newly formed NHS opening the doors of a sanatorium in Kent to all and sundry, we follow the trajectory of the central characters – working class east-end twins Lenny and Miriam – as they butt up against the ‘rules’ of the system. The indiscriminate nature of illness was apparent in the eclectic range of characters from different backgrounds, drawn together under the banner of TB patients. Perhaps this attempt to sketch out such variety was the reason why some of the characters felt a bit lacking in depth. Nevertheless, I was engaged in the story and how it unfolded.
For those with an interest in the origins of the NHS and this point in history, I would recommend.
I read this book as a member of the CiS Readers Group in Edinburgh. We cover a very diverse range of books - some challenging, some divide opinions and stimulate discussion and others are universally loved or loathed!
I enjoyed reading the Dark Circle. The sanatorium was something of a microcosm of class, social and religous (eg attitudes to Jewish people) divisions at that point in history, and the narrative certainly brought home the horrors and realities of TB. Overall, the characters drew me into their lives and aspirations, even though I admit to having a few problems with the characters of Arthur (a bit over the top!) and a rather stereotypical "dodgy" uncle.
Only serious issue I had was that the last 2 sections seemed a bit rushed and lacked the depth of the first section of the book. On the other hand, the return visit to the crumbling sanatorium provided quite a neat closure. Jim Stephen
Working in health policy and public affairs, I'm always fascinated to read both fictional and factual accounts of the management and treatment of public health issues from days gone by, in this case how TB affected people differently. The story takes place in the early days of the NHS, and it was also interesting to observe the key players reaction to its creation and the services it provided.
A diverse cast is brought together by their shared illness - the central characters being twins Lenny and Miriam. I could see it playing out in my head as a TV series or film - our book club likes to do fantasy casting of adaptations - so it'll be interesting to see who they suggest!
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Loved the feisty Jewish twins diagnosed with TB. This is 1949 and the new NHS sees them arriving at a former Sanitorium for the wealthy (the poor died). The book reveals the appalling hardships and peculiar cures and practices that went on at the hospital, where until the advent of the NHS Doctor's could and did do what they liked. The Sanitarium is home to an eclectic host of characters. This would make a brilliant Reading Group book as there is so much to discuss. Fantastic story and thought provoking. Quirky and different in places, their continental holiday post Sanitorium is a scream. Then you have the children's ward. Definitely a contender for the prize.
A fascinating story on a subject I knew little about. Such a scary thought that this was so recent.