Rating: 2.5 stars
I borrowed The Dark Circle from the library for two reasons: it’s shortlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Prize and it was on the list for the Reader’s Room March Madness challenge.
I knew nothing about it, hadn’t read anything by the author before, so went in blind.
Despite thinking I had no expectations, I must have had some because it disappointed me. It wasn’t bad, it just felt like it could have been better. I have no doubt at all that it will be turned into a tv drama.
I found the writing quite clunky at times, particularly when conversations turned into monologues turned into narrative exposition. Clumsiness with description, such as a pair of trousers described as ripped at the knees and elbows, also jarred.
The setting for the first part of the book is the early 1950s. The NHS is still in its infancy. The middle and working classes are benefitting from free medical treatment at institutions that previously only took private patients. Television is also in its infancy. London is recovering from the war. Surviving on rations is a challenge. There is prejudice, petty criminality, shabby glamour and TB.
Lenny and Miriam are twins. Lenny is a spiv, Miriam is a bit brassy. The only time they’ve left London is when they were evacuated to Wales as children. They don’t like the countryside. Bad luck for them, then, when they’re found to have TB and are packed off to a state of the art sanatorium in rural Kent. Here they join an equally broadly sketched set of people being treated for the illness. There are private patients from the pre-NHS days who aren’t keen on the free loading patients from the lower classes. Some of the staff who joined the place in its private days feel the same. There’s a bunch of ex-armed forces officers who behave like they’re in a Kenneth Moore film. There’s a German musician who likes to pigeonhole people and has hidden mysterious depths. There’s a salt of the earth car salesman, and a bored educated woman confined to bed rest in the open air. Eventually they’re joined by a denim clad American who makes Arthur Fonzarelli seem nuanced.
There were parts that I enjoyed, where the author forgot about trying to Tell Us Something Important and let the story take over. In these chapters and paragraphs, the characters came to life and it felt like a novel rather than a self-conscious exercise in the author showing the research she’d carried out.
All of the ins and outs of the sanatorium, the treatments, the patients’ boredom, made for fairly tedious reading. I got the message that treatment of TB in the post-war years was old fashioned and largely ineffective early on. I didn’t need to be told every time a new character was introduced and started moaning about it.
Persky, the denim clad American, works out that the sanatorium is an exercise in breaking people’s spirit and making them compliant. For entertainment, and the edification of those residents permitted to use it, someone donated radio equipment so that the sanatorium had its own radio station. The committee that runs the station sticks to a set playlist of soothing music. It’s like a cosy One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The novel is mildly political. There are some interesting observations about the changing social order and the attempts to level society, make it more equal. The attitude of the director of the sanatorium, who wants to respect TB as a disease with longevity, keeping his patients in chronic ill health by encouraging them to become invalids, was a curious one, rooted as it was in some romantic notion that sufferers of the disease tended to be sensitive artists, like Keats and Chopin. He is resistant to the idea that mass screening and mass treatment of the disease will eradicate it.
There are also some unpursued notions of collective action bubbling under the surface. The author seems unsure whether to depict this as altruism or combined self-interest, and so shies away from saying anything definite on the subject.
Parts two and three tell the stories of those individuals lucky enough to survive. The narrative improved slightly, and there was more in the way of human interest as personal stories were fleshed out and the focus moved away from the medical.
It all felt a little cautious and flippant to me, though, and I honestly don’t know why The Dark Circle made it onto the Bailey’s shortlist when The Essex Serpent didn’t.