Life was better when something mattered, even if it was just putting on your war-paint in the morning.
Lenny and Miriam Lynskey are an East End brother and sister, twins, from a Jewish immigrant family. Lenny is being groomed to take over his uncle Manny’s property development business; Miriam works in a florist’s shop. The Second World War has just ended, but National Service is still in force and Lenny has been called up for his medical exam. He’s not worried—Uncle Manny has paid someone and he’ll be declared “unfit for service”. Except when the results come back, it turns out Uncle Manny didn’t need to pay anyone: Lenny’s unfit for service anyway. The x-rays show he has tuberculosis, and Miriam does too. They’re packed off to a TB sanatorium in Kent, which, under the auspices of the new National Health Service, is now open to non-fee-paying patients for the first time.
This is the premise of Linda Grant’s new novel. There is a lot going on. By far the longest section of the book is the part actually set in the sanatorium, in 1955. I am accustomed to thinking of the NHS as one of Britain’s claims to greatness, a beneficent institution that made social equality a reality, not just a talking point for armchair socialists. It’s unnerving, therefore, to read about the strong resistance to NHS oversight that permeated UK medicine in the 1950s. The attitude wasn’t just held amongst medical professionals, but also amongst patients themselves: the “better class” of people at the Gwendolyn Downie Memorial Hospital see Miriam, in her tight dresses and bright lipstick, and immediately write her off as vulgar and common. The old-fashioned approach to medical treatment—that the patient must passively submit to treatment, which in TB cases usually consisted of “allowing the disease to take its course”—was paternalistic and patronising in the extreme. Grant captures it, and the class undertones, so well:
“Why wouldn’t they let you back in? What’s all this about?”
“It’s the cure, it’s supposed to be a cure.”
“We had the bed rest already.”
“But this is in the fresh air at low temperatures,” said Matron. “It’s a completely different experience. People pay hundreds of pounds to go to Switzerland for this you know, and look at the Alps all day, but here, you’re getting almost as good and for nothing.”
“So you keep saying,” said Miriam. “We know what we’re entitled to.”
Anxiety provoked by encroaching socialism is everywhere, but the Gwendo (as the sanatorium’s inhabitants call it) is no better: medical director Doctor Limb fears the “interference” of the Health Ministry but fails to see how destructive it is for him to force passivity and conformity upon his patients. The arrival of Arthur Persky, a sailor from Brooklyn whose brief docking in London was enough for him to be diagnosed with TB and barred from re-entering his ship, is an explosion of colour and rebelliousness in this closed-off, grey-and-beige world. He completes the process that Lenny and Miriam have started, thoroughly shaking the Gwendo’s social foundations:
A few hours observation had led to an emerging idea. That the Gwendo might be a kind of experimental station for what could be done to tear down the individual self and rebuild it in the model of the well-behaved citizen. And this thought made him sick because there would be no greater power over Persky than Persky.
The Dark Circle is one of the few novels I’ve read that is explicit about the fact that the whole world changed radically after the Second World War. It follows its characters to 1991, which really lets the reader see the enormity of the difference (Miriam visits the Gwendo again in her seventies, and revels in the knowledge that she can buy an ice cream in the local village whenever she likes; when she first arrives, in March of 1950, ice creams are only sold in shops two months out of the year.) But it also acknowledges the changes in real time, as it were; characters in the 1950s are aware that they’re living in a world where nothing will ever be the same again, and by and large, they’re okay with that.
It was nice being in a decade with a pleasant number, the curly 5, the fat 0, no longer the sharp points of the 4 which could rearrange themselves into a swastika if they felt like it, and had done. They were exactly halfway through the century. War was in the process of becoming a memory, not a situation to be endured and survived. Anything new had to be a good thing. She sometimes had a vision of all the red-brick Victorian houses of London being flattened to make way for unassuming beige and white boxes in which everyone could live calmly, with central heating and fitted kitchens.
Reading a paragraph like that in a south London Victorian conversion flat is a bit of a shock to the system: now we venerate those old brick houses with their ceiling roses and their stained glass above the doors. That longing for change, for modernity, for something new, explains a lot about the worst of post-war architecture (Brutalist tower blocks, the Gwendo itself, which is described in the 1991 section: “The optimism of its form was at odds with the stained walls, the cracks in the structure, the unforgiving greyness of its materials.”)
Grant also weaves in the coming of television, the age of air travel and package holidays, and the defeat of the Labour government. Hannah Spiegel, an inmate of the sanatorium who was in Ravensbruck concentration camp during the war, is privately pleased by this defeat, which seemed to me inexplicable until I read the following:
Not everything needed to be subject to socialist planning and the people had understood this and rejected it. There were parts of the country, she’d heard, that still believed in their hearts in an Olde England of pixies and ghosts and magic and privately, she thought that was a good thing, though obviously preposterous.
Grant’s characters are all like this—we might not agree with or fully understand their reasons for holding an opinion; we might even think their opinions are internally inconsistent; but they always, always make sense in the context of the character. Of course Hannah Spiegel fears government interference and enforced togetherness. Her history ensures that fear. Even on holiday in Spain, years later, a group of revel-makers passing her on the road is cause for alarm: “She still did not really like to see columns of people on foot. They gave her what she could only describe as ‘a terrible feeling.’ It came up from her stomach like acid reflux and spoiled everything.”
The Dark Circle is a complicated book. One reading will not do; you may need, and will almost certainly want, to read it a few more times, squirreling out thematic connections. Grant’s preoccupation with Jewishness is here; so is a terrible resonance with the modern-day conditions of our NHS, our parliamentary corruption. Through it all, Lenny and Miriam, Arthur Persky and Hannah and her lover Sarah, continue to live vociferously, to take up space. Putting on your war paint is sometimes the only thing keeping you from destruction, and these characters put on their war paint with a vengeance right to the very end. It’s a joy and a pleasure to read about them as they do so.
This review is part of The Dark Circle blog tour—you can catch the next few days of the tour, and the previous installments, at the brilliant blogs listed below. Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. The Dark Circle was published in the UK on 3 November.