Review published on October 19, 2016.
Lenny, a Jewish cockney is delighted to be exempted from army service until he discovers he has TB and has probably infected his beloved twin sister, Miriam. They are shipped off to a sanatorium in the Kent countryside where their arrival creates a stir in a community drawn mostly from the upper echelons of society plus officers from the forces, professionals and even a member of the aristocracy. The newly formed NHS means that where health is concerned all are equal regardless of class or creed.
Miriam is isolated in a room with Valerie, a highly educated girl from a well off family. They spend days and often nights in bed rest out in the verandah in all weathers, warmly clad, as the clean country air is considered part of the cure for the disease. Lenny is downstairs, sticking out like a sore thumb, distressed at being separated from Miriam for the first time in their 20 years. Their initial determination to escape from The Gwendo diminishes as they begin to enjoy the restful atmosphere, the fresh air, the peace, and especially the rich and unfamiliar quality of food they have not previously enjoyed.
The characterisation is superb as is the interaction between the varying social levels. Dialogue is amusing, absorbing and entertaining. Illness is a great leveller and unexpected bonds are formed between patients. Valerie introduces Miriam and Lenny to the joys of reading the classics and is rewarded by their sense of duty, loyalty and continuing kindness to her.
The arrival of Arthur, a brash seductive American sailor who defies all rules and restrictions and is no respecter of persons, livens things up considerably. He befriends Lenny, and they take over the in house radio show, replacing the repetitive classical records with records of lively jazz and modern records from Arthur’s own collection.
The rumours of the arrival of a wonder drug, streptomycin, gives hope especially to many in the home who have been there so long they are strangers to their own children. If the clean air, bed rest and rich food shows no sign of healing the sick, the last resort is a series of horrific invasive procedures. Little did I realise how fortunate I was receiving the BCG injection. Only a few years before sufferers of TB endured horrific attempts at cures. Air was removed by vacuum from a diseased lung ‘to rest it’, while in the most severe cases a thoracoplasty was performed, removing a rib or two plus the infected lung. After this procedure patients lay facing a mirror to make certain they did not lie to one side.
The Gwendo sanatorium only received enough of the antibiotic for six patients and Dr. Limb had the difficult decision as to who should be given this chance of a cure and a future. By coincidence it was the day of the Jewish Rosh Hashanah, when God assesses strengths and weaknesses in his people, and decides who must live or die over the approaching twelve months. The irony was not lost on the sanatorium head.
Rumours abound and the atmosphere of the house changes. Disappointment and bitterness spread among the patients, calmness vanishes, people become agitated and disruptive. One patient is treated with an illegally acquired drug administered without any medical knowledge by another resident with no medical knowledge. The disastrous result causes the Gwendo to be investigated and found wanting.
Emotional, compassionate, harrowing but also revealing and touching at times this is a really good book that I heartily recommend. Fiction blended with intensive research has created a thought provoking and rattling good tale. A window into lesser known history.
In such an intense book a reader identifies with the characters and their suffering. Often finishing a book I am left with the ‘want to know what happens next’ feeling. I was delighted to find two final chapters that round off this story with skill and tremendous satisfaction.
Sheila A. Grant 5/5
THE DARK CIRCLE by Linda Grant
Virago 978-0349006758 hbk Nov 2016
SECOND OPINION: Hillstation by Robin Mukherjee