Women’s Prize Winners Reading Project: Grant, Martin, Shields et al.
In this 25th anniversary year of the Women’s Prize, readers are being encouraged to catch up on all the previous winners. I’d read 14 of them (including Hamnet) as of mid-April and have managed five more since then – plus a reread, a DNF and a skim. I recently reviewed Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne as part of this summer reading post. This leaves just four more for me to read before voting for my all-time favorite in November.
When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant (2000)
Some settings have been done to death, but here’s one I don’t think I’d ever encountered before: Israel in the final year before statehood. Grant dramatizes the contrast between Palestine, a doomed British colony, and the Jewish hope of a homeland. In 1946 twenty-year-old Evelyn Sert leaves her home in London, masquerading as a Gentile tourist (though she has Latvian Jewish ancestry) so as to jump ahead of thousands of displaced persons awaiting entry visas. With her mother recently dead of a stroke, she takes advice and money from her mother’s married boyfriend, “Uncle Joe,” a Polish Jew and Zionist, and heads to Palestine.
After six weeks on a kibbutz, Evelyn sets out to make her own life in Tel Aviv as a hairdresser and falls in with Johnny, a Jew who fought for the British. It’s safer to be part of the colonial structure here, so she once again passes as Gentile, dyeing her hair blonde and going by Priscilla Jones. In a land where all kinds of people have been thrown together by the accident of their ethnicity and the suffering it often entailed, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. For Evelyn, who’s never known anywhere apart from suburban London and arrived in Palestine a virgin, the entire year is a journey of discovery. Will a place of ancient religious significance embrace modern architecture, technology and government? Grant really captures this period of transition for an individual and for a nascent nation of exiles. I loved the supporting characters and the nostalgic look back from half a century on.
In a country with its face turned towards the future, our stories sat on our shoulders like a second head, facing the way we had come from. We were the tribe of Janus, if there is such a thing.
With hindsight it always seems easy to do the right thing, but we were trying to decide something in those days that people don’t often get a chance to have a say in and it was this: would we be a free nation after two thousand years of wandering or would we always be a subject race? Would we be ghetto Jews or new Jews?
Property by Valerie Martin (2003)
A compact study of slavery that unfolds through the relationship between a New Orleans plantation owner’s wife and her husband’s mistress. Manon Gaudet has never been happy in her marriage, but when their slave girl, Sarah, bears her husband a second child, she decides she has had enough of silently condoning his behavior. A slave uprising and cholera and yellow fever outbreaks provide some welcome drama, but the bulk of this short novel is an examination of the psyche of a woman tormented by hatred and jealousy. Ownership of another human being is, if not technically impossible, certainly not emotionally tenable. Manon’s situation is also intolerable because she has no rights as a woman in the early nineteenth century: any property she inherits will pass directly to her husband. Though thoroughly readable, for me this didn’t really add anything to the corpus of slavery fiction.
A reread (as well as a buddy read with Buried in Print):
Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (1997)
“The whole thing about mazes is that they make perfect sense only when you look down on them from above.”
Larry Weller is an Everyman: sometimes hapless and sometimes purposeful; often bewildered with where life has led him, but happy enough nonetheless. From the start, Shields dwells on the role that “mistakes” have played in making Larry who he is, like a floral arts catalogue coming in the mail from the college instead of one on furnace repair and meeting Dorrie at a Halloween party he attended with a different girl. Before he knows it he and a pregnant Dorrie are getting married and he’s been at his flower shop job for 12 years. A honeymoon tour through England takes in the Hampton Court Palace maze and sparks an obsession that will change the course of Larry’s life, as he creates his first maze at their Winnipeg home and gradually becomes one of a handful of expert maze-makers.
The sweep of Larry’s life, from youth to middle age, is presented roughly chronologically through chapters that are more like linked short stories: they focus on themes (family, friends, career, sex, clothing, health) and loop back to events to add more detail and new insight. I found the repetition of basic information about Larry somewhat off-putting in that it’s as if we start over with this character with each chapter – the same might be said of Olive Kitteridge, but that book’s composition was drawn out and it involves a multiplicity of perspectives, which explains the slight detachment from Olive. Here the third-person narration sticks close to Larry but gives glimpses into other points of view, tiny hints of other stories – a man with AIDS, a woman trying to atone for lifelong selfishness, and so on.
From my first reading I remembered a climactic event involving the Winnipeg maze; a ribald chapter entitled “Larry’s Penis,” about his second marriage to a younger woman and more; and the closing dinner party, a masterful sequence composed almost entirely of overlapping dialogue (like the final wedding reception scene in her earlier novel, The Box Garden) as Larry hosts his two ex-wives, his current girlfriend, his sister and his partner, and a colleague and boss. What is it like to be a man today? someone asks, and through the responses Shields suggests a state of uneasiness, of walking on eggshells and trying not to be a chauvinist in a world whose boundaries are being redrawn by feminism. That process has continued in the decades since, though with predictable backlash from those who consider women a threat.
It seems slightly ironic that Shields won the Women’s Prize for this episodic fictional biography of a man, but I found so much to relate to in Larry’s story – the “how did I get here?” self-questioning, the search for life’s meaning, “the clutter of good luck and bad” – that I’d say Larry is really all of us.
One of Shields’s best, and quite possibly my winner of winners.
My original rating (2008?):
My rating now:
Currently rereading: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore (1995)
An annoying thing happened with this one: the back cover blurb gave away a central theme. It’s one I’m keen to avoid yet feel I have encountered disproportionately often in fiction, especially recently (I won’t name any titles as that would give it away instantly). Dunmore writes nicely – from my quick skim of this one it seemed very atmospheric – but I am not particularly drawn to her plots. I’ve read Exposure for book club and own two more of her novels, Talking to the Dead and Zennor in Darkness, so by the time I’ve read those I will have given her a solid try. So far I’ve preferred her poetry – I’ve read three of her collections.
A favorite passage:
“It is winter in the house. This morning the ice on my basin of water is so thick I can not break it. The windows stare back at me, blind with frost. … I can see nothing through the frost flowers on the glass. I wonder if it is snowing yet, but I think it is too cold. … I look at the house, still and breathless in the frost. I have got what I wanted. A spell of winter hangs over it, and everyone has gone.”
And a DNF:
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)
Patroclus is a disappointment of a prince. He has no chance of winning Helen of Troy’s hand in marriage, and exile awaits him when he is responsible for an accidental death. As a foster child in the household of another king, he becomes obsessed with Achilles. The two young men take part in music lessons and military training, and Patroclus follows Achilles away from the palace to be taught by a centaur. That’s as far as I got before I couldn’t bear any more. The homoerotic hints are laughably unsubtle: (of a lyre) “‘You can hold it, if you like.’ The wood would be smooth and known as my own skin” & (fighting) “he rolled me beneath him, pinning me, his knees in my belly. I panted, angry but strangely satisfied.”
I got a free download from Emerald Street, the Stylist magazine e-newsletter. The ancient world, and Greek mythology in particular, do not draw me in the least, and I have had bad experiences with updates of Greek myths before (e.g. Bright Air Black by David Vann). I never thought this would be a book for me, but still wanted to attempt it so I could complete the set of Women’s Prize winners. I read 77 pages out of 278 in the e-book, but when I have to force myself to pick up a book, I know it’s a lost cause. As with the Dunmore, I think it’s safe to say this one never would have gotten my vote anyway.
The final four to complete my project:
(On the stack to read soon)
The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville – free from mall bookshop
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney – public library copy
How to Be Both by Ali Smith – public library copy; a planned buddy read with B.I.P.
(To get from the university library)
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Read any Women’s Prize winners lately?
Women’s Prize Longlist 2020 Thoughts & Other Prize Reading Projects
Next Wednesday the 22nd, the Women’s Prize shortlist will be revealed. However, the winner announcement has been delayed until September 9th, so we all get extra time to read the finalists (which is handy since the 900-page Hilary Mantel is a shoo-in). I happen to have gotten through half of the longlist so far. There were some books I cared for more than others. Of the remainder, I plan to pick up a few more once my library reopens.
Here’s how I’ve fared this year, in categories from best to worst, with excerpts and links to any I’ve reviewed in full:
- Dominicana by Angie Cruz: In 1965, 15-year-old Ana Canción, married off to an older man, leaves the Dominican Republic for New York City. With not a word of English, she feels trapped in her apartment and in this abusive relationship. Yet Ana is such a plucky and confiding narrator that you’re drawn into her world and cheer for her as she figures out what she wants from her life. This compassionate novel is proof that not all the immigration stories have been told yet.
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: A terrific linked short story collection about 12 black women in twentieth-century and contemporary Britain balancing external and internal expectations and different interpretations of feminism to build lives of their own. The prose is more like poetry: a wry, radical stream of consciousness. A warm, spirited book, it never turns strident. It’s timely and elegantly constructed – and, it goes without saying, a worthy Booker Prize winner. To win the Women’s Prize too would be unprecedented, I think? But no surprise.
- Weather by Jenny Offill: Could there be a more perfect book for 2020? It’s a blunt, unromanticized but wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life. Set either side of Trump’s election, it amplifies many voices prophesying doom, from environmentalists to Bible-thumpers. Lizzie’s sardonic narration is an ideal way of capturing relatable feelings of anger and helplessness. Don’t expect to come away with your worries soothed, though there is some comfort to be found in the feeling that we’re all in this together.
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: A memorable exploration of family secrets and memories. Maeve and Danny Conroy are an inseparable brother-and-sister pair. When their father dies, they become like Hansel and Gretel: cast out into the wilds by an evil stepmother who takes possession of the only home they’ve ever known, a suburban Philadelphia mansion built on the proceeds of the VanHoebeek cigarette empire. Patchett always captures the psychology of complicated families, and her sharp prose never fails to hit the nail on the head.
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: Like a family saga in miniature, this short novel stretches backward from Melody’s 16th birthday party, held in Brooklyn in 2001, to explore previous generations of the African American experience. Chapters alternate between first- and third-person narration, highlighting the perspectives of all the major family members. I raced through to see who would follow in family footsteps, or not. The title is apt: the book is sometimes raw and sometimes tender. It’s an emotionally engaging story of loss and memory.
Currently skimming (1)
- The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel: I’ve stalled around page 200. I’ll be totally engrossed for a few pages of exposition and Cromwell one-liners, but then everything gets talky or plotty and I skim for 20‒30 pages and put it down. My constant moving between 10‒20 books and the sudden loss of a deadline have not served me well: I feel overwhelmed by the level of detail and the cast of characters, and haven’t built up momentum. Still, I can objectively recognize the prose as top-notch.
Did not particularly enjoy (3)
- Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner: To me this didn’t stand out at all from the sea of fiction about crumbling marriages and upper-middle-class angst.
- Actress by Anne Enright: A slow-burning backstory of trauma and mental illness. I found I wasn’t warming to the voice or main characters and mostly skimmed this.
- Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: In comparison with other historical fiction, this fell short. Overall, I found the prose flat and repetitive, which diluted the portrait of grief.
Attempted but couldn’t get through (1)
- Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – I’m wary of child narrators anyway, and the voice didn’t grab me within the first few pages.
Still plan to read (3)
- Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
- How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
- The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
Not interested (3)
- Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie: Sounds subpar.
- A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes: Say no to updated Greek classics.
- Girl by Edna O’Brien: I don’t care for O’Brien’s writing. Though this was well received by the critics, it’s not finding much love among my trusted bloggers. (Plus there’s the cultural appropriation issue.)
My ideal shortlist
(A wishlist based on my reading and what I want to read)
Dominicana by Angie Cruz
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Weather by Jenny Offill
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
My predicted shortlist
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Actress by Anne Enright
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Girl by Edna O’Brien OR Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Callum, Eric, Laura and Rachel have been posting lots of reviews and thoughts related to the Women’s Prize. Have a look at their blogs!
In this 25th anniversary year of the Women’s Prize, readers are also being encouraged to catch up on previous winners.
- I’ve read 13 so far (and am currently rereading On Beauty by Zadie Smith).
- I already had Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville on my shelves, plus The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller on my Nook.
- I recently found a copy of A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne at the free bookshop where I volunteer.
- On my current library stack are When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant, Property by Valerie Martin and Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels.
I can’t promise to be a completist about this project because the prospect of reading A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing and The Glorious Heresies fills me with dread, but we’ll see…
Other Prize Reading Projects
I’d been trying to make my way through some previous Wellcome Book Prize winners and nominees, but have been scuppered by my library’s closure. At the moment I have Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (2017 longlist; passed on from my father-in-law) and Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes (2016 shortlist; from the library) on my pile to read or, more likely, skim.
I also had the idea to read all the Bellwether Prize winners because I loved The Leavers so much. (Known in full as the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, it is a biennial award given by PEN America and Barbara Kingsolver, who created and funds the prize, “to a U.S. citizen for a previously unpublished work of fiction that address issues of social justice.”) This project did not start particularly well as I DNFed Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. However, I own copies of Mudbound by Hillary Jordan and The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow and hope I’ll have better luck with them.
What prize lists or other reading projects are keeping you busy?
Three Novellas in Translation
The Institute by Vincent Bijlo
[London’s Holland Park Press specializes in making classic and contemporary Dutch literature available in English translation.]
Otto Iking is a resident at the Institute, a boarding school for the blind. He characterizes his fellow students firstly according to their smell – “foul soap,” “piss” or “grated Swiss cheese” – only later adding in details about their speech and habits. It’s a zany sort of place, powered by pranks and strange decisions. Some stand-out scenes include hiding Harry’s glass eyes and a visit from the president of Surinam, a former Dutch colony. The slapstick humor works well (“When I walked into a lamppost, I said sorry. When I struck my head against a traffic sign, I said sorry. No one has ever apologised to street furniture as often as I did”), but some humor translates less well, seeming cruel or even offensive (“Tony was fat and deaf and black-skinned”).
Alongside the silliness is the matter of Otto’s coming of age. He has the first inklings of what sex is about and falls for Sonja, and also undergoes training to prepare him for the real world, things like reading and writing Braille, preparing and eating tricky meals (soup’s a killer). One day he hopes to go to a mainstream school and broadcast radio programs. The institutional setting and quirky cast reminded me of The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old and Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle.
The Institute, originally from 1998, was published on April 27th. Translated from the Dutch by Susan Ridder. My thanks to Bernadette Jansen op de Haar for sending a free copy for review.
This is the first of three Otto Iking novels. Vincent Bijlo, a Dutch stand-up comedian, was born blind.
Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel
[Peirene Press issues its translated European novellas in trios. This is the final installment in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series; I’ve also reviewed the first two, The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch and The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay.]
I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel narrated by a homeless person before. Gabriela von Haßlau has a noble name and a solid upper-middle-class background – her father was a surgeon and chief medical officer specializing in varicose veins; her mother was trained as a radiographer before becoming a housewife and society hostess – but her life took a turn for the worse at some point and she now lives in an encampment under a canal bridge in the town of Leibnitz (a fictional stand-in for Leipzig).
It’s July 1994 and she decides to write her life story on whatever scraps of paper she can get her hands on. She remembers being forced to play the violin as a child even though she was largely unmusical, enduring mockery at school for being one of the intelligentsia, playing hooky with her best friend Katka, and failing at a mechanical engineering apprenticeship. The narrative toggles between Gabriela’s memories and her present situation: getting blankets and food from a shelter and trying to avoid being sent to the mental hospital.
My unfamiliarity with German history, especially that relating to East Germany and reunification, means I probably missed some nuances of the plot; I found the ending quite sudden. What was most worthwhile about the book for me was experiencing homelessness with Gabriela and tracing some of the unfortunate events that led her to this situation. It’s also interesting to see how she shapes her life story in scenes and streams of consciousness.
Dance by the Canal, originally from 1994, was published on July 3rd. Translated from the German by Jen Calleja. With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
Hair Everywhere by Tea Tulić
[London’s Istros Books specializes in Balkans and South-Eastern European literature in translation.]
How could I resist such a terrific title and cover image? This was Croatian novelist Tea Tulić’s first book. In brief, titled vignettes almost like flash fiction stories, she dramatizes how a cancer diagnosis affects three generations of women. The book is strong on place, sensual detail and scene-setting. The narrator’s mother is in the hospital, and all the specialists and medicinal plant extracts in the world don’t seem to be helping. In such a restrictive narrative format, a line or two of dialogue can reveal a lot about a character’s attitude. The grandmother is a weary pessimist – “I just need to help your mother get through this and then I can die” – while the narrator is quite the hypochondriac.
The tone ranges from poignant to cynical, as in the absurd two-page sequence in which the family cannot locate an on-duty doctor who can read the latest X-ray results for them. The deadpan language and mixture of black humor and pathos reminded me of Adios, Cowboy by Olja Savičevi, which coincidentally is the only other Croatian novel I’ve encountered, and was originally published in the same year, 2011.
A few favorite lines:
“One little cloud was urinating.”
“While I watch her lying in bed, I can feel the umbilical cord between us. Something I have tried to cut a thousand times already. And now I hold onto that invisible cord as though I were hanging from a bridge.”
“Patrick Swayze” in its entirety: “My brother is angry because the doctors say they cannot help Mum. I tell him Patrick Swayze had lots of money but he still died of cancer.”
Hair Everywhere was published on May 22nd. Translated from the Croatian by Coral Petkovich. My thanks to Susan Curtis for sending a free copy for review – and to TJ at My Book Strings for making me aware of this title during Women in Translation Month.
2016 Runners-Up and Other Superlatives
Let’s hear it for the ladies! In 2016 women writers accounted for 9 out of my 15 top fiction picks, 12 out of my 15 nonfiction selections, and 8 of the 10 runners-up below. That’s 73%. The choices below are in alphabetical order by author, with any full reviews linked in. Many of these have already appeared on the blog in some form over the course of the year.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: Atwood looks more like a good witch every year, and here she works her magic on The Tempest to produce the most satisfying volume of the Hogarth Shakespeare series yet. There’s a really clever play-within-the-play-within-the-play thing going on, and themes of imprisonment and performance resonate in multiple ways.
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church: In Church’s debut, an amateur ornithologist learns about love and sacrifice through marriage to a Los Alamos physicist and a relationship with a Vietnam veteran. I instantly warmed to Meri as a narrator and loved following her unpredictable life story.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge: The Freemans are raising Charlie, a chimpanzee, as part of their family for a Toneybee Institute experiment and teaching him to communicate via sign language. This is a rich and unsettling story of human–human interactions, even more so than human–animal interactions; it’s a great first novel and I will follow Greenidge’s career with interest.
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey: Ivey’s intricate second novel weaves together diaries, letters, photographs, and various other documents and artifacts to tell the gently supernatural story of an exploratory mission along Alaska’s Wolverine River in 1885 and its effects through to the present day. I can highly recommend this rollicking adventure tale to fans of historical fiction and magic realism.
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell: Spreading outward from Ireland and reaching into every character’s past and future, this has all O’Farrell’s trademark insight into family and romantic relationships, as well as her gorgeous prose and precise imagery. I have always felt that O’Farrell expertly straddles the (perhaps imaginary) line between literary and popular fiction; her books are addictively readable but also hold up to critical scrutiny.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: This deep study of blended family dynamics starts with an early 1960s christening party Los Angeles policeman Fix Keating is throwing for his younger daughter, Franny; we see the aftermath of that party in the lives of six step-siblings in the decades to come. This is a sophisticated and atmospheric novel I would not hesitate to recommend to literary fiction fans in general and Patchett fans in particular.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith: Jessie Burton, Tracy Chevalier and all others who try to write historical fiction about the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, eat your hearts out. Such a beautiful epoch-spanning novel about art and regret.
Shelter by Jung Yun: A Korean-American family faces up to violence past and present in a strong debut that offers the hope of redemption. I would recommend this to fans of David Vann and Richard Ford.
I Will Find You by Joanna Connors: By using present-tense narration, Connors makes the events of 1984 feel as if they happened yesterday: a blow-by-blow of the sex acts forced on her at knife-point over the nearly one-hour duration of her rape; the police reports and trials; and the effects it all had on her marriage and family. This is an excellent work of reconstruction and investigative reporting.
Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge: Younge built this book by choosing a 24-hour period (November 22 to 23, 2013) and delving into all 10 gun deaths of young Americans on record for that time: seven black, two Latino, and one white; aged nine to 18; about half at least vaguely gang-related, while in two – perhaps the most crushing cases – there was an accident while playing around with a gun. I dare anyone to read this and then try to defend gun ‘rights’ in the face of such senseless, everyday loss.
Best Discoveries of the Year: Apollo Classics reprints (I reviewed three of them this year); Diana Abu-Jaber, Linda Grant and Kristopher Jansma.
Most Pleasant Year-Long Reading Experience: The seasonal anthologies issued by the UK Wildlife Trusts and edited by Melissa Harrison (I reviewed three of them this year).
Most Improved: I heartily disliked Sarah Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Flood. But her second, The Essex Serpent, is exquisite.
Debut Novelists Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Stephanie Danler, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Francis Spufford, Andria Williams and Sunil Yapa.
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, and Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Here’s hoping 2017 doesn’t bring any letdowns from beloved authors.
The Worst Book I Read This Year: Paulina & Fran (2015) by Rachel B. Glaser. My only one-star review of the year. ’Nuff said?
The 2016 Novels I Most Wish I’d Gotten to: (At least the 10 I’m most regretful about)
- The Power by Naomi Alderman
- The Museum of You by Carys Bray
- The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
- What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell*
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
- The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky
- The Inseparables by Stuart Nadler
- Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst*
- The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney*
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead*
*Haven’t been able to find anywhere yet; the rest are on my Kindle.
Which of these should I get reading on the double?
Coming tomorrow: Some reading goals for 2017.
Review: The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
Linda Grant’s seventh novel, The Dark Circle, stars Lenny and Miriam Lynskey, nineteen-year-old twins and representatives of London’s small Jewish population. It is 1949; Miriam works in a flower shop and Lenny has just been rejected by the army at his National Service medical appointment. He has tuberculosis and there are worries about Miriam’s lungs, too, so it’s off to the Gwendo (the Gwendolyn Downie Memorial Hospital for the Care of Chronic Cases of Tuberculosis, that is) for both of them. We briefly see them through the eyes of the cab driver who takes them down to Kent: “The pair in the back were common as muck.”
It’s clear this is no ordinary sanatorium; it has a “reputation for being a modern, iconoclastic facility for the very best people,” like Lady Anne and Miriam’s Oxford-educated roommate, Valerie. The Lynskeys, as NHS rather than private patients, may be looked down on as a different class of people, but they bring fresh life into the place. That’s doubly true of new arrival Arthur Persky, a twenty-six-year-old Navy man from Brooklyn. He enlivens the bleak, clinical surroundings with rock ’n roll music and a certain sex act. The Gwendo, once a place of boredom and conformity, now seems like a site of quiet rebellion.
One of Grant’s key skills is characterization, and short chapters from different characters’ perspectives give us access to their backstories. I especially liked getting to know German refugee Hannah Spiegel. Kafka, oddly enough, forms a link between her and the Lynskeys: Valerie has been reading The Metamorphosis aloud to Miriam to try to educate her; Miriam, absolutely captivated, gets Lenny in on the listening sessions, and he asks Hannah to interpret the book for them since she’s read the original German. “No, no-one can explain, it’s not possible to do so,” she replies. “You experience it in your way, it’s a labyrinth you must pass through but the labyrinth is yourself.”
The same might be said of tuberculosis. Each of these patients has the same disease, so Dr. Limb and his nurses sometimes treat them as interchangeable, yet each medical journey is individual and unpredictable. The typical approach was a pneumothorax injection to temporarily collapse one lung so it could ‘rest’, but in extreme cases some patients would have ribs removed. Great hopes were pinned on streptomycin treatment, and on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish day of reckoning in 1950, Dr. Limb takes on the role of God, weighing up who live and who will die in the coming year. He has seven courses of streptomycin to distribute, but who will get them? The weakest? The woman he’s in love with? Or the ones with the most chance of improving? Meanwhile, Miriam’s condition is worsening, and Lenny and Persky decide they’ll do whatever it takes to make sure she gets one of those injections.
I was impressed by how Grant evokes her period setting through dialogue, slang and music. The novel’s tone is wry yet melancholy, almost nostalgic. The terrific opening paragraph gives you a taste of the no-nonsense style:
London. Big black old place, falling down, hardly any colour apart from a woman’s red hat going into the chemist with her string bag, and if you looked carefully, bottle green leather shoes on that girl, but mostly grey and beige and black and mud-coloured people with dirty hair and unwashed shirt collars, because everything is short, soap is short, joy is short, sex is short, and no one on the street was laughing so jokes must be short too. Four years after the war and still everything is up shit creek.
The final 60 pages are set in the future and reveal what happens to Lenny, Miriam and key others in the decades after they leave the sanatorium. These former patients are bound together in the title’s “dark circle” of suffering, but because TB has been eradicated no one remembers their pain. “From a death sentence to a course of antibiotics in a decade,” Lenny marvels. The novel loses momentum a bit in this short final section. I felt it would have been more powerful if Parts II and III were cut and the book simply ended with the plot coming full circle and Lenny and Miriam leaving the Gwendo in a taxi. But this is a minor quibble. The Dark Circle does what the best fiction does: drops you right into a situation you’ve never thought about and can’t begin to imagine—until a first-class novelist does so for you.
The Dark Circle was published by Virago on November 3rd. My thanks to Poppy Stimpson of Little, Brown for the free review copy.
It was a delight to participate in my first blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared and will be appearing soon.