Book Club · Culture

The Dark Circle: Love and Rebellion in the time of TB

From the rubble of WWII destruction, The Dark Circle tells the story of a pair of Jewish twins, Lenny and Miriam, whose lives are put on hold by a tuberculosis diagnosis. We are introduced to the microcosm of the sanatorium, where patients from all backgrounds and walks of life are thrown together, in some cases having nothing in common aside from their rotten lungs.

This melting pot of characters creates what would otherwise be socially unusual friendships and alliances: working-class Jewish florist Miriam befriends Valerie, an Oxford graduate, who embarks on a mission to share some of her university knowledge with Miriam, whose main literary focus up until then had been fashion and celebrity magazines. Lenny, not confined to his bed like Miriam, has numerous encounters with a lady, an army captain and Hannah Spiegel, a mysterious German woman and previous concentration camp inmate – people with whom he would never have interacted outside of the sanatorium. Grant depicts disease as a great class leveller in the (affectionately nicknamed) Gwendo Memorial Hospital. Some patients may have silk handkerchiefs, dress up in their diamonds and wear luxurious slippers, but in the end, everyone is waiting for the same cure, equally available (or unavailable) regardless of background and class.

There is a sense of solidarity in the Gwendo, where this shared experience breaks down social boundaries, hinting toward a less class-focused future. However, the novel also reveals the deep prejudices toward the Jewish community running through post-Holocaust British society. From the Traflagar Square incident at the beginning of the novel, where Lenny angrily throws his lunch at a fascist, to comments and snide remarks made throughout the book, we see that undisguised anti-Semitism is still a daily reality for Jews. Even the taxi driver bringing them to the sanatorium sees them as lesser beings: “they were Hebrews, and that lot were only out for themselves, particularly the refugees. You had to keep an eye on them, they were swarming like bees these days.” His comparison of Jews to insects is deeply unsettling, evoking the imagery of Nazi oppression so soon after the Second World War. Even Valerie affectionately calls Lenny a “hairy Jewish ape”, echoing her parents’ comment about the “hairy Jewish gorilla” earlier in the novel. This was something I had found striking about the novel – I had not known how prevalent anti-Semitism was post-WWII.

Grant’s engaging style is another aspect which drew me into the novel’s world. Set in a time just between TB being a death sentence and an easily cured illness, there is a sense of humour to the book which stops it from being monotonous doom and gloom. There is a well-balance counterpoint between comedic scenes of rebellion and everyday life, and the moving reminders of the novel’s dark and difficult setting. Told that he will be given a test cure which might rid him of the disease, Captain Iain Jackson thinks: “But my God, how will I adapt? I must marry, I suppose, be a father, go to parties and dinner parties and watch my hair disappear in the mirror. Is it really worth it, this life thing?” This train of thought, both comic and tragic, summarises the tone of the novel. Even when surrounded by death and tragedy, Grant finds grains of humour, however ironic.

Most of all, however, it is the relationships between the various patients of the sanatorium, their struggles and delights, that form the heart of the book. Through the intense relationship between Lenny and Miriam that we see the strength of love in the struggle for survival, and the desperate measures people will go to to protect those dearest to them. Through the twins’ relationships with Persky, we see their hunger for adventure and excitement – for life. This “dark circle”, the shared suffering between all of the Gwendo’s inmates bonds them intimately for life, as our exploration of their stories and fight for life bonds them with us, the readers.

 

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