Outcast by illness, class, race and more in post-war Britain
I have been a fan of Linda Grant since discovering her 2000 Orange Prize Winner – When I Lived in Modern Times. Grant, born in Liverpool in 1951, often draws on family roots as the starting point for her writing. Her family background is Central and Eastern European Jewish, and the central characters, and themes, in several of her books explore the history of what it means to be ‘the outsider’, even, the despised or reviled outsider.
So I was delighted to be offered The Dark Circle as an ARC.
Grant continues with the theme of looking at society from the point of the view of the outcast. The setting is 1949, and society is changing – most particularly, the foundation of the NHS the previous year gives the novel its particular framework. The central characters are late teen’s twins, Lenny and Miriam, working class, Jewish, aspirational.
Despite the events of that recently ended war, anti-Semitism is alive and well. The book opens memorably, with savage political point and with humour. Sharp young Lenny, Teddy Boy in the making, a young man with prospects in property, is, at age 18 more interested in impressing the girls He is in love, or at least in lust, with a sexy young Italian girl. He is up in Soho on his way to his appointment with the army – conscription, National Service, was not abolished until 1960. He finds himself caught up in a demonstration, which turns out to be one organised by anti-Semites. Lenny interrupts the demo and the hate-filled speaker quite choicely. Grant has a knack for making serious points without being po-faced, indeed using wit so that the reader snorts whilst getting the punch-point, the snapshot she wants us to think and feel about. (The reader must hopefully enjoy their own moment of humour at how Lenny ends the speaker’s rant, it’s a nice touch and I wouldn’t want to pre-empt the amusement.
Miriam, his sexy, voluptuous sister, meanwhile, dreams of owning her own flower shop. The owner of the shop where she presently works ‘in a nice part of London’ has re-named her Mimi, because:
Whilst there’s nothing wrong with Miriam, it’s a little too Hebrew for our clientele. Not that they are prejudiced, but they expect a level of service and certain standards from us
Fate however has other things in store for the two siblings.
Lenny fails his army medical as he proves to have TB. And, so it seems does Miriam.
The bulk of the novel is set in a closed community where everyone is an outcast – a TB sanatorium in Kent – the dreaded country, far away from the city streets the young urban twins are used to. They have bad memories of the country from wartime evacuation. The sanatorium had been the preserve of the titled and the wealthy with TB, but the new Nationalised Health Service brings a new class of patient, as, slowly, others – Lenny and Miriam amongst them are admitted. The sanatorium has to accept these ‘not-quite-us’ patients if they wish to attract certain funds.
The closed society of outcasts gives Grant the opportunity to explore much of interest around different individuals, different cultures, and different kinds of outsiders brought together. It’s as much social satire as it is a darker examination of medical practices, medical ethics and a teasing out of very individual stories, some of which, of course, will involve skeletons. Here, for example is more or less silent, musical Hannah (for reasons which will come clear) whom initially we meet through her thoughts and actions, not her words
She assigned to each of them an instrument according to the sound of their voices and their anatomy, for some had hourglass figures and looked like violins, or spoke like string instruments, high and trembling, or were potbellied and boomed like a kettledrum. Many were weedy and needy and piped like flutes. No one, so far, had the physical or vocal range of the grand piano. Bassoons and double basses were missing
(despite the fact that Violetta (Cossello) is cradling Alagna (Alfredo) in her arms, rather than the other way round, it IS Violetta who is singing her TB death song)
This is territory Grant does well, but, unusually I was more aware of her crafting the story and manipulating its trajectory than I usually am with her. I was not quite fully absorbed by the reality of it. This was particularly the case for the ‘wrap-up, look-back’ sections. Though the bulk of the story is set in the sanatorium “Each Breath You Take” the second part, jumps forward to 1953, where some of the inmates and their significant others take an early holiday in what will later be a staple of the tourist industry, in Majorca. I liked Lenny’s initial assessment on landing in Palma, of the contrast between Majorca and Britain in the early 50s:
it was easy to forget that winter was a product of the rotation of the planets, not some government policy imposed upon its citizens deliberately, like income tax and rationing
Grant makes her astute points with wry, sometimes acerbic wit
The ‘wrap’ where loose ends are tied in 2002, through a device which allows some of the central characters to sum-up their histories, felt less satisfying
Grant is always a good read, a good story-teller, but this one did not engage me as fully, emotionally, as other books I’ve read by her.