Review: The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.

When the NHS is under threat and incorrect nonsense about vaccinations continues to be spouted, The Dark Circle offers a timely look back at how the country struggled to deal with widespread infections and the groundbreaking way the NHS provided healthcare for people who would never normally have been able to seek any kind of medical help. 

When twins Lenny and Miriam Lynskey discover that they both are suffering from tuberculosis, they’re dispatched to ‘the Gwendo’, a sanitorium in Kent specifically designed to treat the disease. It’s the 1950s, so rationing is still in effect and the trauma of the Second World War is still very much felt in the population. The Gwendo’s inmates live in hope of the miracle cure streptomycin as it hits an almost mythical status in the news of successful trials in the States.

Linda Grant populates the Gwendo with all sorts of characters, from various walks of life. The aristocratic Lady Anne who permanently resides at the facility and adds a little glamour, a group of officers invalided out of the military for their disease, and a German refugee who sits apart. Lenny and Miriam swiftly make their own friends, including the a university graduate, Valerie Lewis, and an American sailor who breezes in like Randle McMurphy, intent on breaking the status quo.

Where The Dark Circle excels is in conveying the sense of limbo that embodies society in the years after the Second World War. Technology is advancing, social restrictions are loosening, and some are handling this shift better than others.The Gwendo functions as a focus of this displacement. It’s a world of its own, caught between classes, sickness and health, where the wait for the streptomycin TB cure feels interminable. Military personnel mingle with civilians, the upper classes with the lower. The only thing they have in common is the disease that affects their lungs.

There are occasional plot points that don’t seem to go anywhere, affairs focused on that disappear for several chapters only to have ended by the next time we get to them. But more often than not, the fractured feel works for the narrative, adding to the sense of displacement that the characters are going through. The coda, checking back in with those that survived the Gwendo, is a particularly inspired touch. Following their (often literally) stationary years in the sanitorium with a look at how they moved on provides a hopeful ending to a sometimes sad story as well as highlighting the long-lasting impact of their treatment.