REVIEW: The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

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.


EVENT: Sarah Perry at Waterstones

If you like books, you’ll have heard of Sarah Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent. It was released in May 2016 and promptly became an absolute sensation across the whole of the UK. It has sold a phenomenally huge amount of copies considering that a) it’s literary fiction and b) it only just came out in paperback. It was Book of the Year in Waterstones last year and with good reason – I started work in my local branch of Waterstones in the beginning of December and let me tell you, we got through a LOT of copies of that book. Naturally, I bought one for myself, for a number of reasons:

  1. It sounded interesting.
  2. If there’s that much hype, then let’s face it: there’s no smoke without fire.
  3. I have followed Sarah Perry for a while on Twitter, and she is excellent on there.
  4. Okay, fine: the cover. Good god, the cover is beautiful.

Have I read it yet? Um, actually, no. I have been somewhat reticent to do so, for a few reasons:

  1. Hardback books, man. I do a lot of my reading on the tube and not only are hardback books heavy, but the sheer beauty of this one made me feel particularly strongly about not wanting to let it get battered in my bag.
  2. Despite all the hype, I wasn’t actually entirely certain if it was my kind of book. (Yes: this is idiotic of me.) What’s that I hear you say? ‘BUT LUCY. YOU ARE FREAKING OBSESSED WITH SARAH WATERS.’ Yes, yes, that’s true. But- ‘AND CODE NAME VERITY IS STRAIGHT UP YOUR FAVOURITE YA BOOK OF ALL TIME.’ Valid point. However- ‘AND EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN HAS BEEN PRETTY MUCH YOUR FAVOURITE BOOK OF THIS WHOLE YEAR SO FAR.’ Yes!! Fine!! I just need to spread my wings a little more. Broaden my horizons. Read books that have complex, beautiful prose ase well as more cleanly written YA. The fact that this book looked a little dense and that it is also historical fiction put me off a little. I am trash. Forgive me.
  3. I have had a lot of books to read this year. It turned into a book wall. The Essex Serpent has been at the bottom and I feared that if I tugged at it too hard, I would cause a book avalanche. It’s happened before. Blood was drawn.

Let’s face it: none of those reasons are remotely good enough. Now that I have a paperback copy of The Essex Serpent, it has shot right to the top of my to-read list (and also the actual literal top of my book wall). But more so than the paperback, Sarah Perry’s talk at the Piccadilly branch of Waterstones really swung it for me. She is fab. She is so, so fabbity fab fab. She is one of those people where you keep thinking ‘I wish we could be best friends’ and then a moment later you’re like ‘Actually, she’s way too clever to be my best friend’ and then a moment after THAT you’re like ‘Although I think she’s nice enough to pretend I’m cleverer than I am, so maybe I have a chance’. Here is a picture (her back is to me because let us face it: I chose the wrong place to sit).

IMG_0017 (2)

Reader, we are not, as of yet, best friends. But her talk was so good. There is a real joy in listening to people who know things, and who are enthusiastic about things, and who have all this interesting information stored in their minds and who can whip out facts and interesting snippets whenever the occasion calls for it. I wish I was one of those people. The only facts I have in my brain are things like ‘Did you know that Harry Styles is an Aquarius?’, which is frankly not as interesting as any of the things that Sarah Perry said at her talk. I had a little notebook with me and I tried so hard to take notes but unfortunately it was so interesting that I was forced to slap my notebook shut and listen instead. But here are a few little snippets from the talk:

  • She attributes her success to ‘having a relatively short attention span and a thirst for knowledge’. Honestly, this sounds like an excellent way to be. She also attributes it to the cover, which I would normally deny, but guys: it is a great cover.
  • She describes her writing process as ‘like being in a basement and striking a match and seeing the pictures that are painted on the walls’. She phrased it much more elegantly than that, but I can only write so quickly. I love that idea: as though she discovers her stories rather than slogging them out.
  • The story came to her on a car journey with her husband through the Essex countryside. JK Rowling came up with Harry Potter on the train from Edinburgh and I remember Adele Parks talking at the Rooftop Book Club about how she comes up with a lot of her plots while she’s driving. There’s something about travelling and movement that sparks imagination, tbh.
  • The book is partly about the conflict between faith and reason, about friendship, and about the modernity of the Victorian age. I didn’t write this part down because I am not the best of note takers, but she mentioned about how a lot of literature supposedly set in the Victorian age is a little inaccurate and more prudish and old fashioned than it should be.
  • Perry talked about how she was brought up in a very religious environment – her father is both a sixth age creationist and a scientist, which means she never thought there was a conflict between the pursuit of science and a person who is very religious – they’re not irreconcilable opposites. The novel asks the question: is it possible to live as a creature of faith and as reason? She thinks there’s a sort of nobility in the pursuit of truth and science – a moral virtue. (I loved this part of the discussion. It made me consider my own views of religion and how I tend to dismiss religious people too easily. Is there ANYTHING better than having your views challenged?)
  • Perry enjoys the sameness of the past – the ways in which it’s the same as the way we live now, and not different. (Does human nature ever really change?) She wanted to un-silence Victorian women. (PS: she phrased it much more nicely than that.)
  • QUOTE OF THE EVENING: “Victorian women did not spend their days on chaise longues hemming handkerchiefs until their husbands came home and impregnated them with their nineteenth child.” VERY GOOD.
  • Perry mentioned the working classes, and how they have historically been the engines of change. She mentioned the 1888 East End Matchgirls’ Strike which ha ha, I, a genius, knew absolutely nothing about and am now very glad that I do. She talked about how working class women and illiterate women in the 19th century were full of intellectual inquiry, and proto-feminists.
  • Those are all the notes I have because I accidentally closed my notebook and listened hard instead, although now I am regretting not writing more down. I remember that she talked a lot about friendship and its important and essential roles in our lives and how it isn’t necessarily lesser than romantic love, which really struck a chord with me and made me extremely excited to read this book.

As a final note, Sarah Perry has nice hair and lovely shoes and a great dress. It may be odd to point these things out, but frankly I would be happy if someone told me about those things at any time. More than the dress and shoes, she was interesting and passionate and brilliant and I loved listening to her, and if I get a chance to go to another one of her events I definitely will. And I cannot wait to read The Essex Serpent.