Linda Grant’s most recent novel is set primarily in the early 1950s. Twins, Lenny and Miriam Lynskey, are set to conquer the world. The only cloud on their horizon is Lenny’s impending spell of National Service, but that is a minor problem because Uncle Manny knows someone who can fix it. What Uncle Manny can’t fix, however, is the result of the chest x-ray that Lenny has as part of his medical. He has tuberculosis: a disease which hovered over the lives of everyone in that period, regardless of age, class or ethnicity. Lenny and Miriam, who for all of their eighteen years have shared not only a room but also a bed, are packed off to the Gwendo, a sanatorium deep in what is, to them, an alien environment – the countryside.
The Gwendo started life as a private enterprise, but the introduction of the National Health Service has changed all that, much to the distress of the most of the staff working there, who have never come across anything quite like these East End Jewish teenagers.
Mrs Carver, Matron you must call her, did not have to check her files to know that they were coming under the National Health scheme and wouldn’t pay a penny out of their own pockets, they could hang around as long as they liked and it wouldn’t cost them a farthing. And they would stay, she felt sure of that. They would burrow into the system like parasites and milk it for everything they could get. Clean sheets, wholesome food, all the leisure time in the world. It was a skiver’s paradise, a sanatorium which had been built for a better class of persons, and there was nothing at all that she could do to protect the admirable Lady Anne from the sight of cheap loud vulgar people.
For many of the inmates, however, Lenny and Miriam provide a much need diversion, because the presiding ethos, as laid down by Doctor Limb and the formidable Mrs Carver, dictates that in order to be a patient one has to learn to be patient – a word that isn’t in the twins vocabulary. Whatever Matron may think, they have no intention of staying in the Gwendo a moment longer than they can help and while they are there they are going to make their presence felt.
But if the lives of the long term residents, including a group of service men who have become infected during the war, a set known as the Mothers’ Union and most pitifully the cruelly treated and isolated children, are changed by the Twins’ presence, Lenny and Miriam are transformed too. Two fellow inmates are primarily responsible for this: first there is Valerie Lewis, a middle class Oxbridge graduate with whom Miriam shares treatment. Forced to spend days and weeks doing nothing but lie in bed on an outside balcony, regardless of weather, the two women forge an unlikely, but ultimately mutually beneficial, friendship. Miriam teaches Valerie about make-up, while Valerie introduces her and through her, Lenny, to the world of literature.
And then into their lives comes Arthur Persky a name to shatter glass. Arthur is an American sailor turfed off his ship when he is discovered to be ill and sent to the Gwendo until such time as he is deemed fit enough to return to the States. He blows through the Sanatorium like a hurricane, bringing with him the latest rock and roll music and an approach to sexual morality which takes the inmates by storm. Miriam is completely won over and can see only a future spent in Stateside luxury.
But without effective treatment there will be no future for any of them and the much hailed streptomycin is in pitifully short supply.
‘Because we fought a war and we’re broke, that’s why, and now we’re practically bankrupt. We have to buy it from America. We haven’t got the exchange currencies. I’ve heard that penicillin and streptomycin are kept in the military wards under armed guard while the kiddies are dying off like flies of infections.’
Six precious doses are made available and the question of distribution eventually leads to the Gwendo’s downfall.
I first read The Dark Circle when it was short listed for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize earlier this year and enjoyed it so much that I recommended it to one of my book groups. Apart from anything else we are all of an age to have some memories of this period and a number of us had relatives who had succumbed to TB before antibiotics were available. In fact reception was mixed. About half the group had been as impressed as I was, others not so and one member positively disliked it. None, however, had read it in quite the way I had. I read this novel as very much an allegory reflecting the changes that came about in Britain in the 50s, with the Gwendo as a microcosmic world indicative of the societal shake up that followed the war years and the 1944 Labour Government’s reforms. When Persky blows in halfway through the twins’ treatment for me this is symbolic of the way in which the strength of American influence began to predominate in the middle part of that decade. This then makes sense of the latter part of the novel which reflects from present day affluence on a time when genuinely we were all in it together only then to add, for a while we were, at any rate. Grant clearly does not feel that we are all in together any longer:
For always in the heat, the shimmer of the sun on the surface of the pool, the cicadas in the trees, the smell of suntan oil, the rustling of the maid in the dimness of the kitchen preparing lunch, as if seen from the corner of the eye, a deserted half-ruined building in Kent, a remnant of an old disease, now undergoing a revival. Stealthy, lying low, waiting for a point of weakness in the human race, then lodging in the lungs of humanity to make its sluggish progress through the body, the magnificent shape of our temporary wholeness, until we die and other species take us on.