by Linda Grant
published by Virago, 2016
It’s four years since the end of the Second World War. Against a background of grey, post-war austerity and an embryonic NHS, the streets are ‘full of foreigners … Eyeteye boys…full of resentment and elegant curses, Maltesers with black eyes and strings of girls on the game, refugees from Europe… and the occasional coloured gentleman looking chilled to the bone.’ For Miriam and Lenny, Jewish twins from the East end, life is just beginning. Miriam is working in a florists as ‘Mimi’, because it’s less ‘Jewish’, and Lenny is relying on his uncle Manny to avoid military service by pulling a few strings.
However, when Lenny’s ‘lousy rotten chest’ and ‘bad lungs’ are diagnosed as TB he really is unfit for national service, as is Miriam, ‘her life over at nineteen.’ They are sent away to the Gwendo, a sanatorium in the countryside, where ‘out on the balconies the ill lay in their beds, taking in the rays of light and breathing, breathing, breathing.’ Miriam is horrified to discover that the patients’ main activities are to ‘take our temperatures… several times a day… We spit a lot, we drink enormous amounts of milk…’ and at night there is ‘nothing but blackness and stars and a slice of moon as sharp as a knife to cut your throat.’
Here they join a fascinating cast of characters representing the social experiment that the ‘new health scheme’, the new NHS, has created. Instead of a ‘fashionable sanatorium’ envisaged by the director of the Gwendo the ‘government had opened the door of the slums.’ As the only alternative to months of bed rest and strict routines is invasive surgery, which could leave the patient disfigured and isn’t guaranteed to work, everyone in the sanatorium is waiting for the new wonder drug Streptomycin which is still being tested.
Miriam and Lenny are just beginning to make friends and adapt to their claustrophobic, regimented life when an American serviceman, Persky, arrives. ‘A name to shatter glass, Lenny later thinks.’ Persky brings jazz, noise, fun and unconventional sex. He immediately rejects the sanatorium’s lectures on ‘learning how to be a patient’ and plans to ‘mould the environment to himself, not to be moulded’; like McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest he rebels against the image of the ‘well-behaved citizen.’
However his plan to help Miriam by giving her stolen Streptomycin has unforeseen long-term effects; she is ‘maimed by an illness’ that is now so easily cured by antibiotics, that it ranks with a whole range of forgotten 1950’s staples including: ‘spam fritters and two-bar electric fires… outside lavatories and condensation …and no supermarkets.’
Photo of Linda Grant from the Guardian
For too long we’ve taken antibiotics as a given to be used for any minor illness and, according to many scientists, we’re on the cusp of the ‘post-antibiotic era’ where once again there will be no simple cure for TB and many other presently treatable diseases. At the end of this novel Linda Grant issues a stark warning: the ‘dark circle’ of tuberculosis is still with us, ‘waiting for a point of weakness… then lodging in the lungs of humanity to make its sluggish progress through the body the magnificent shape of our temporary wholeness until we die and other species take us on.’ It is a warning that we should ignore at our peril.
Yet The Dark Circle is in no way a depressing read. On occasions the meticulous research shows, and sometimes there is a sense that we are being force-fed a 1950’s diet of ‘pink blancmange made from cornflour’, but this is a novel that is both entertaining and funny, as well as deeply moving. Highly recommended.