I’ve read several books by Linda Grant, starting with The Clothes on Their Backs, which I liked. There’s a lot of publicity already for The Dark Circle and I can see why the publishers have high expectations for it. The book begins in post-war London with Jewish twins Lenny and Miriam about to start adult life in the new world. But fate has other ideas. When Lenny takes a medical test for his National Service, he’s found to have TB and he and Miriam are packed off to ‘the Gwendo’, a sanatorium in Kent. City-bred, they hate the country. The sanatorium is run on traditional lines: bed rest, open air treatment (beds outside even in the snow) for some, hobbies for those able to walk about. Being a patient is a full time job. The director thinks of people ‘learning to be’ patients. It’s very easy to become institutionalised.
Lenny is not the type to knuckle under and nor is the young American who makes a sensational entry. While Lenny is one of the walkers, Miriam is put out on the verandah where she meets an educated young woman, a type she’s never met before. As a result she and Lenny actually start reading real books for the first time and an unlikely friendship develops between the three.
A theme of the book is that TB is out of date in the twentieth century. I like this:
‘She had been maimed by an illness that was so far out of fashion it might have been a wartime recipe for pink blancmange made from cornflour when everyone these days ate real chocolate mousse and tiramisu. TB was spam fritters and two-bar electric fires and mangles and string bags and French knitting and a Bakelite phone in a freezing hall and loose tea and margarine and the black of the newspaper coming off on your fingers and milk in glass bottles and books from Boots Lending library with a hole in the spine where they put the ticket, and doilies and antimacassars and the wireless tuned to the Light Programme. It was outside lavatories and condensation and slum dwellings and no supermarkets. It was tuberculosis, which had died with the end of people drinking nerve tonics and Horlicks.’
Because there may be a way out and it’s called Streptomycin. Unfortunately, as with some cancer drugs today, it’s in short supply, expensive and doesn’t work for everyone. It’s for the director to decide who will be guinea pigs; potentially, whether a patient will live or die. It’s a tribute to the character development in the book that I was hoping that Lenny, Miriam and their best friends would survive the illness and the book. There is a shock development, but no spoilers here. This is very well worth reading, for the characters and for the well-researched account of the effects of TB a mere sixty or seventy years ago. This may be the best of Linda Grant’s books I’ve read.
The Dark Circle will be published by Virago on 3rd November and I read it courtesy of the publishers and NetGalley
Winter, ed Melissa Harrison
‘Everything has its season for display; and we cannot learn the story of the year if we read only eight or nine of its twelve chapters.’ Edward Step, Nature Rambles, 1930.
I’ve already reviewed Spring and Autumn here. Sadly, I wasn’t sent Summer :-( Although autumn is my favourite season, I’m enjoying Winter even more than I did the other two books, loving my nightly dose. Perhaps it’s something to do with snuggling under the duvet while reading about ice and snow; perhaps I actually look forward to the bare winter landscape. The book is the mixture as before: extracts from both classic and modern writing. My favourite piece is an extract from the diaries of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Winter is out now and again The Wildlife Trusts benefit from sales. On 10th November the publishers, Elliott and Thompson, are bringing out a smart Box Set of all four volumes. That would make a lovely present for someone.
The Descent of Man, Grayson Perry
Grayson Perry is an agreeable companion. His writing is chatty, personal, amusing. He begins by saying that most of the trouble in the world is caused ‘by the Y chromosome’. He posits a mythical chap called Default Man, who is white, middle aged, middle class and heterosexual. Default Man sees himself as so absolutely normal that he has successfully imposed his norms on society, making all other groups seem like odd minorities. You might think Perry is just saying, ‘men are awful’ but no. He argues that men would be happier and society improved if Default Man would just drop some of his sense of entitlement. There is another type called Old School Man. This poor bloke lives in the past, when muscled masculinity was necessary for working in heavy industry. This, Perry points out, is now redundant.
So what does Perry hope for? An end to the idea of a ‘norm’, so that everyone is accepted for who they are; for men to develop greater emotional intelligence; for greater gender equality. Don’t we all? This is the problem with the book. Entertaining and perceptive as it is, it will be read by people who already agree with him. I like my arguments: ‘this is what I think; here’s why I think it, reasons bang, bang, bang; that’s why I’m right.’
For me, the book is a little too rambling and has too many generalisations. Grayson Perry is himself a great role model for the different appearing normal. We must have come some way when a man can receive a CBE from the Queen or appear on HIGNFY wearing a dress without anyone turning a hair. I loved the cartoons decorating the book. They reminded me of Roz Chast.