Book Review: ‘The Dark Circle’ by Linda Grant

By Freya Neason

She stops for breath in Trafalgar Square where some people are marching around with sandwich boards on their chests and someone is ranting about how he’s had enough, which is stating the bleeding obvious because everyone has. Misery piled on misery, just without bombs and bomb shelters. (p.8)

The third book I read from the longlist of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction was The Dark Circle by Linda Grant. This novel explores the treatment of tuberculosis in post-World War II Britain. It focuses entirely on a strange sanatorium located deep in the countryside of Kent, following the plight of its many patients and staff who are impacted by the disease. Initially, the reader is introduced to the world of the Gwendolyn Downie Memorial Hospital – or the Gwendo to its patients – through the eyes of its newest residents, Lenny and Miriam, who are two Jewish teenagers from London’s East End, determined not to succumb to the system. However, The Dark Circle also includes the perceptions of numerous other patients, providing a multi-dimensional account of their efforts to obtain the elusive lifesaving drug, streptomycin.

Although her novel is written in the third person, the narrative is shared between a wide range of characters and consequently, a wide variety of viewpoints are revealed. Whilst Lenny and Miriam superficially appear to be the protagonists, the story is also told through the perspectives of an American sailor, a mysterious German woman and an Oxford graduate, amongst many others. It is this polyphonic structure that is largely responsible for the overall success of the novel; partly because its lively pace prevents the dreary atmosphere of the Gwendo from infecting the reader, but also because it allows for one event to be seen through the eyes of many people. Furthermore, it facilitates the portrayal of the prejudices and stereotypes present in 1950s Britain by revealing the characters’ opinions of each other in the body of the novel. With this technique, The Dark Circle simultaneously presents how far our society has come as well as highlighting the sobering reality that we still have a long way to go: some opinions contained within this book have been firmly left in the past, but some are still present today. By juxtaposing such beliefs with the outdated and bizarre treatment of tuberculosis, Grant skilfully demonstrates just how obsolete these preconceptions really are within today’s society. 

The treatment of tuberculosis is a fundamental aspect of the plot. For a reader who is ignorant of this chapter of history, it is easy to mistake this novel as a complete work of fiction. With the Gwendo’s futuristic architecture and seemingly hypnotised residents, Grant depicts something which could be mistaken for a fantasy, or even dystopic, world. However, her meticulous research enables her to fill the text with graphic details of genuine operations and medicines, reminding the reader that these events really did happen. The story of the Gwendo and its patients is a brutally honest, sensitive and enlightening account of the past horrors of tuberculosis.

Personally, I didn’t find this book as harrowing or depressing as I had been warned it might be. Details of the primitive treatments of tuberculosis are undoubtedly shocking but a strange film of uneasy calm pervades this novel and prevented me from having any emotional reaction. The emphasis the staff at the Gwendo place on the patients’ necessity to actually become patients particularly contributes to this unnerving air of passivity: ‘You must be a patient […] you must learn obedience, you must surrender to our will, completely and absolutely. Only then will you be well’ (p.61). 

Grant’s descriptive passages ooze with atmosphere, conjuring up a vivid picture of gloomy post-war Britain. It is unlikely I would have read The Dark Circle if I wasn’t undertaking this challenge – I am glad that the Baileys’ longlist gave me the opportunity.

Image: little, brown and Faye Chua

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