Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, Book reviews, Literary fiction

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

The Dark Circle is Linda Grant’s latest book and one of six contenders for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

It’s the seventh book from Grant, who also writes as a journalist and non-fiction author. The author is no stranger to a literary prize or two – in fact, she won this prize (then known as the Orange Prize for Fiction) in 2000 with When I Lived in Modern Times. She got the Lettre Ulysses Prize for Literary Reportage (surely a contender for best award name ever?) in 2006, had her book Still Here longlisted for the Man Booker in 2002, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2008 with The Clothes on their Backs, which went on to win the South Bank Show Award.

She’s certainly a seasoned writer with an impressive literary CV. But how will she fair against some of the newer writers on the Baileys Prize shortlist?

The Dark Circle

What’s it all about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

The Second World War is over, a new decade is beginning but for an East End teenage brother and sister living on the edge of the law, life has been suspended.

Sent away to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Kent to learn the way of the patient, they find themselves in the company of army and air force officers, a car salesman, a young university graduate, a mysterious German woman, a member of the aristocracy and an American merchant seaman. They discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched.

What’s good about it?

Grant is obviously an extremely accomplished writer and The Dark Circle is a rich and complex novel. She creates a thoroughly atmospheric opening, and I was drawn into the story immediately.

Miriam and Lenny, the teenage siblings we follow into the sanatorium, are very likeable characters and are the benchmark for comparing all others. Grant uses their social status, Jewishness, sexuality and morality in narratives about all manner of subjects such as the establishment of the NHS, post-war prejudice and eligibility for a cure. All very interesting stuff that will certainly get you thinking.

The cast of supporting characters bring pathos and laughter to the book. Persky, a US merchant and fellow patient, brings sex, glamour and rock n roll to the sanatorium, while Hannah’s story is a heartbreaking tale that comes good in the end.

Grant balances the gory details of gruesome TB treatments with the void of confinement from the world beautifully, providing a tender and sensitive portrayal of life in the sanatorium.

What’s not so good about it?

I don’t think the “wholesale rebellion” promised by the book jacket is delivered. Yes, the characters push boundaries and challenge the medical authorities but the coup I was hoping for didn’t materialise. Grant did such a good job of creating the sanitorium that I felt that I, too, was waiting – waiting rather too long for the narrative to progress.

This is a good novel – a solid story crafted by strong writing and well-developed characters. However, it lost me around 3/4 of the way through when the interest I’d invested in the characters began to wane as the years in confinement tumbled on.

Fans of Grant’s work will love this, I’m sure. It’s my first reading of her work and I’d certainly explore her back catalogue after reading The Dark Circle. 

For me, The Dark Circle was a good read with some excellent storytelling but it needed additional pace to really make it a contender to win the Baileys Prize.

Photo credit: Eamonn McCabe for The Guardian


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