First and foremost: I liked this book. When I heard about its subject matter I immediately knew that it’d be the first book that I’d be reading from the Baileys Prize shortlist (so far it’s also the only one, oops). I’ve always been fascinated by illness and medicine, because I am a creep like that – and I’ve also always been interested in old hospitals. I live near Princess Park, which was for a long time a mental asylum called alternatively Friern Hospital and the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. For a while it also held patients suffering from TB. These days it’s a load of luxury flats which quite frankly I would rather die than live in (unless I got one of the ones that a member of One Direction lived in, in which case I will cut out little squares of the carpet to glue into my stalkers’ scrapbook). Otherwise I don’t think I could do it. The walls of a place like that would hold appalling memories. There’s something so terribly bleak about these places where people went to die. The image of Miriam and Valerie heaped in blankets on balconies in the fresh air is something that has really remained with me. The treatments that these characters – and that real people – were oppressive and terrible. Valerie propped up in bed alone after her operation is something that I have remembered a couple of times after this book was finished.
Actually, this book had a lot of images that stayed with me. The way people were described through each other’s eyes, particularly Miriam and Lenny. I thought they were great characters and brightened up what would otherwise have been a pretty dry at times novel – the physical descriptions of them were glorious, particularly of Miriam, her hair and curves and colours. As a London girl, I love any characters who are London as fuck, and that was exactly what I got with Miriam and Lenny. One thing that I loved about this book was how fully formed the characters felt – although some of them were peripheral and drifting in and out, I felt as though they had rich lives away from the information on these pages – or poor lives, but lives nonetheless. I also liked the fact that London felt like a character – crater-scarred, being rebuilt by people like Uncle Manny. There was a completely delicious contrast between that and the Gwendo. One character that I didn’t connect well with was Arthur Persky – I felt that he was more of an idea than a person, although maybe in hindsight that works perfectly because that was how the other people at the hospital saw him.
I will add that sometimes there were too many different POVs for me. Sometimes it was hard to connect to the character whose eyes we were seeing through simply because on occasion it was hard to remember who was who. However: I am perfectly willing to accept that that was user error and my appalling memory and attention span as opposed to any fault of the author’s. I liked the detail about the medical procedures, although sometimes there was a bit of a ‘Look how much research I’ve done’ vibe. Another thing that I really enjoyed was the class divide in the book and the subtle ways that it was drawn. It’s a truly fascinating time in history – as the NHS is brought in, meaning that the lives of people like Miriam and Lenny could be saved – and the contrast of the new NHS patients to the older private patients was really fascinating. I thought the minutiae of all the different stories was great, and would be interested to learn which ones were specifically inspired by the history of real TB patients.
The ending was something that I didn’t adore. It felt a little Return of the King-esque in that it had quite a few ending scenes, meaning that each of them was a little diluted. I think that one leap forward into the future would have been enough for me. I felt as though there could have been a bigger emotional punch, somehow, although part of me worries that I missed some of the subtleties and delicacies of the novel. I think that is probably my fault and not the author’s. The atmosphere was wonderful, and the characters as well – and of course the language was precisely evocative of the time that she wanted to convey. The small observations of humans and their odd behaviours were perfect, and there were huge swathes of this book that I really enjoyed. I felt as though there was a bigger point being dangled in front of me that I didn’t quite manage to grasp, but this book will stay with me, and has inspired me to look for more works on similar themes.