By Linda Grant
Linda Grant's last novel, Upstairs at the Party, took place in a British university campus in the 1970s. The Dark Circle, her seventh novel, is set mainly in a 1940s sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis.
The more mature Grant becomes as a novelist, the smaller her canvas. Not that Grant's concerns are in any way trifling. Her cast of characters is nothing less than a portrayal of post-war, class-riven Britain from the indolent aristocracy, to Oxford-educated blue stockings, and from car salesmen to the bottom of the pile, German émigrés and East End Jewish lowlifes.
Four years after the war, all national types are represented in "The Gwendo" (as the Kent sanatorium is known) from taciturn ex-army officers, to the censorious Mother's Union, to furtive Lesbians and flirtatious, peroxide-blonde nurses. Once taken over by the NHS, the Gwendo becomes a microcosm of national evolution as the inhabitants of this "total institution" shift from deference to democracy, and from compliance to defiance.
The shockingly primitive methods of treating TB - collapsing lungs, breaking ribs, strait-jacketing children and months of cold air - are replaced by antibiotics (which have yet to be imported from the United States).
You had to show the regime who was the boss
If each of the Gwendo's inhabitants verge on caricature, then this is because they are viewed through the London-centric young adult eyes of Miriam and Lenny Lynskey.
For them, the Gwendo epitomises, paradoxically, "real England like they show you on tins of biscuits and calendars". Miriam and Lenny are consumptive twins born in the East End who speak of their "countryside gulag" when evacuated to Wales and regard the Kent countryside as a mixture of "trees, flowers and salad".
They are steeped in the criminal East End, Miriam begins as a shoplifter (wearing a pair of "hoisting drawers") and Lenny is under the wing of his nefarious Uncle Manny, whose property portfolio is jeopardised by his black-marketeering. Their response to the infantilising and dehumanising sanatorium is to rebel: "you had to oppose the regime, you had to show it who was boss if you were to survive".
They are aided in their rebellion by the larger-than-life Arthur Persky, an American merchant seaman, who energises both the novel and the inmates of the Gwendo. Miriam falls madly in love with Persky, who turns out to be the "most vibrant consumptive anyone had ever seen".
For Lenny and Miriam, a year of TB turns out to be a mixed blessing. While they are both damaged physically, they gain an education from the Oxford-educated Valerie who reads great works of literature to them. Her insights enable them to escape their East End origins and shape the world from the bottom up.
Grant writes well about illness as all who have read Remind Me Who I Am, Again can testify. This is a novel, above all, about trauma caused by the "dark circle" of tuberculosis, and results in a "tight circle" of comradeship. The ambitious reach of the novel is wisely held in check by its focus on a time when Lenny and Miriam had to discover for themselves what it was to be human.