Linda Grant’s sixth novel depicts Britain struggling through a period of enforced Austerity, with tensions rising between young and old, wealthy and poor, British and ‘foreign’. Her London is a ‘big black old place, falling down, hardly any colour… everything is short, soap is short, joy is short, sex is short, and no-one on the street was laughing so jokes must be short too’. The overwhelming feeling is of a population which has ‘had enough’ – a phrase which recurs throughout The Dark Circle. As discontent grows, outsiders are scapegoated: Grant highlights a mounting trend of Anti-Semitism, with speakers denouncing Jews at Trafalgar Square rallies.
Opportunity is stifled by the economic circumstances, and the generation which was too young to fight finds its youthful energy running into dead ends. Lenny Lynskey is a man with big plans, encouraged by his Uncle Manny, a self-made man with black market connections. Aged 18, Lenny ‘had his own London drape with two pairs of trousers… In the neighbourhood he was part of a gang of boisterous Jewish lads who thought they were on top of the world’. However, he has an obstacle in his path: the prospect of being called up for National Service. As a resourceful young man, he has a solution – getting his Uncle to bribe a clerk into giving him a medical exemption. Lenny is horrified, though, when his scans reveal a genuine illness: Tuberculosis.
His twin sister, Miriam, is in a similar condition. A modern girl, whose interests include ‘hats, hairdos, frocks, how to straighten your own stocking seams from behind by looking in a mirror, film stars and… exhilarating games of ping-pong’, she has dreams of opening her own florists. She too is infected, and is forced to put away her plans for a period of complete rest.
In the days before a proven cure, Lenny and Miriam are sent to convalesce at the Gwendolyn Downie Memorial Hospital for the Care of Chronic Cases of Tuberculosis, in Kent. The twins are able to access this treatment because the sanatorium has been taken over by the new National Health Service; their presence is not appreciated, however, and there are mutterings of parasites and skivers burrowing into the system and ‘pushing to the front of the queue’. The Gwendo is a microcosm of Britain itself; insular, deferential, and unchanging. Built by a wealthy local family as a genteel tribute to their late daughter, the hospital was designed with the latest Continental methods in mind: ‘Completely modern, designed for purpose… a building which is a machine to make people better, a medical instrument, like an oxygen tank’. The reality never lived up to the ideal, however, and the site is viewed by locals as a ‘leper colony’. The atmosphere is ‘morbid’, dedicated to a memory of the past, and unfulfilled potential.
Presiding over this regime is Doctor Limb, who regards Tuberculosis almost as a venerable tradition. He encourages his patients to embrace ‘patienthood’, a philosophy based on the acceptance of the world’s ills, rather than a desire to cure them. A sense of complacency permeates the sanatorium, as the patients slowly get fatter on double helpings of cream, while their bodies are eaten away inside. There is a clear, unspoken class structure in place, with the first inmate, Lady Anne, taking precedence, and a cadre of army officers maintaining a quiet discipline, reinforced by a group of women known as the Mothers’ Union.
Even such an apparently moribund institution as this cannot resist change indefinitely, however. The creation of the National Health Service has opened the wards to a new class of patient: ‘types with bad table manners and no taste’. Lenny and Miriam are among the first of these, but more shocking still is the arrival of an American, Arthur Persky. Persky enters the Gwendo ‘like an explosion in a mine… the most vibrant consumptive anyone had ever seen’. He is evidence of the world beyond the sanatorium walls, where the first stirrings of Rock and Roll are beginning to be noticed, and Camus is working on The Rebel.
It has been said that Labour’s landslide election victory in 1945 was the consequence of working people from across the country being bought together by conscription, and forced to battle adversity with a collective spirit. The sanatorium performs a similar function for its NHS patients; Miriam and Lenny are able to get an informal education from Miriam’s room-mate Valerie, and are exposed to the wider world by their relationships with Perksy and Hannah, a survivor of the Ravensbruck camp.
The group begins to challenge Limb’s prescribed passivity, first on an individual level, and then, more successfully as a collective. They cling to the hope of a miracle cure: Streptomycin, a new drug being trialled in America. At first, Limb resists this unproven treatment, but demand grows, and the new arrivals show that they are willing to use the black market to find supplies if official channels can’t provide what they need. The news that a trial will only make the drug available to selected patients accelerates the atomisation of the Gwendo’s social structure, as individuals seek to pull strings for their own benefit, and the era of deference to Limb’s authority is challenged.
With its many contemporary parallels, The Dark Circle is a strong piece of social commentary, but Grant’s characters have an emotional depth which makes them more than archetypes. She details the debilitating psychological effects of the transition from health to sickness. Thanks to the influence of Valerie, Lenny and Miriam read Metamorphosis, and come to identify strongly with Gregor Samsa’s transformation and ostracism. The growing self-awareness of members of the officer class that their day has passed brings pathos, while there is a recurring comic motif based around Persky introducing cunnilingus to the women of the sanatorium.
Grant’s focus is on individuals, or small groups of activists, kicking against entrenched systems, but she is also aware of the collective trauma that can be embedded in the psyche of a generation. In the truncated second and third sections of the novel, she describes the afterlives of the ‘dark circle’, a group who ‘had all come from a place of suffering and terror… who had endured the futile boredom of the way of the patient, who had been made passive for years on end and had been cured not by deference to authority but by defiance’. She is careful not to deride previous generations, humanising the officers who ‘are, one way or another, suffering from a kind of war sickness’, and even the lovesick and awkward Dr Limb. The one section of society which does come in for scorn is the aristocracy, represented by Lady Anne, a relic of a previous order who appears incapable of surviving outside of an institution.
The Dark Circle acts as a critique of Austerity Britain, but also demonstrates hope that a generation may respond to adversity with creativity and collective action. There is an issue with the structure of the novel, which seems slightly telescoped: the latter sections are too long for an epilogue, but too short to measure up with the main body of the novel, which reduces their impact. The chronological leaps are jarring after the continuity of the first section, and while the post-sanatorium sections are still enjoyable, they feel somehow less significant.
Any Cop?: The Dark Circle is a qualified success; the characterisation is very strong, and the shifting social order inside The Gwendo is brilliantly portrayed. Whilst momentum is lost slightly towards the end, this is still a powerful document of a generation stifled by austerity, and finding a strategy to fight back.