The writer’s take on sanatorium life makes for refreshingly
original reading. Indeed, the latest work from the Orange Prize-winner and Man
Booker-shortlisted author centres around a group of patients who are packed off
to a sanatorium in Suffolk. Linda Grant’s new novel, The Dark Circle begins in
London in 1949, the opening chapters offering a brief glimpse of the post-war
city: “Big black old place, falling down, hardly any colour (…) mostly grey and
beige and black and mud-coloured people with dirty hair and unwashed shirt
collars, because everything is short, joy is short, sex is short, and no one on
the street was laughing so jokes must be short too.”

Before we know it though, we’re whisked away to the middle
of the Kent countryside, as ill at ease and discombobulated as Lenny and Miriam
Lynskey, north-London-dwelling twins diagnosed with tuberculosis just when
their lives should have been getting started — Lenny eager to do his national
service, Miriam working in a West End flower shop. Instead, they’re packed off
to the Gwendo sanatorium, newly open to all, completely free of charge, under
the National Health Service.

The Lynskeys, for example, are the establishment’s first
Jewish patients, just some of the “new arrivals” turning up, “types with bad
table manners and no taste for the genteel facilities the Gwendo offered its
languid inmates: bridge tournaments, flower arranging, golf for the fitter
ones”. Appropriately, Grant’s take on sanatorium life is a far cry from
Mann’s  The Magic Mountain or its
romanticised ilk, and this makes for refreshingly original reading. Her
characters are bored, hacking their lungs up, undergoing painful and
debilitating procedures, and scared of dying. Grant brings this cloistered
world vividly to life, its pains and pleasures equally heightened. The bounty
of illness, for example: lashings of cream, plenty of bacon, bed rest and fresh
air, all in stark contrast to the impoverished austerity of the age.

With the NHS in peril today, the time couldn’t be riper for
fictional examinations of its inception. To do so through the prism of TB is
especially inspired though, the ravages of this disease now relegated to
history alongside society before free healthcare for all levelled the playing
field. A one-time death sentence — “like AIDS, but nothing to do with sex,” a
now elderly character explains to her clueless young hairdresser years after
the fact —  today most cases  of TB are easily cured.

Of course, if antibiotic resistance comes to pass as
predicted, it could all too easily make a crippling comeback, but that’s a
horror story in the making for another author. All the same, these disturbing
contemporary issues linger ominously in Grant’s margins, silently enriching
what’s already an astonishingly good period piece. Confirming precisely where
the strength of her work lies, it’s when Grant does look to the future —
through the addition of two “aftermath” sections that explore what happened to
the Lynskeys and other patients after the arrival of the miracle drug
streptomycin; too late for some, life-transforming for others, but at a high
cost for one in particular — that the novel flounders. This mars the overall
effect, but luckily it doesn’t detract from the power of the bulk of the
narrative.

The Independent