Linda Grant, winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel “When I Lived in Modern Times”, is once again among those nominated for this esteemed prize, this time for her 2016 novel “The Dark Circle.” “The Dark Circle” tells the story of twins Lenny and Miriam, 19-year-olds who are inseparably, perhaps disturbingly, close. Lenny and Miriam are just beginning to find their way in the world of adults in post-WWII London. The two are scrappy, feisty, and full of life, fiercely devoted to one another and hopeful for their futures.
“[Lenny] only knew people who carried sacks of anxiety and neuroses and cynicism on their backs. Miriam was an outgoing extrovert but she still regarded the world as a place that needed to be tackled like a prize-fighter with two fists raised.”
Still living at home – and in fact sharing a room – the twins are under the heavy-handed, not always legitimate, influence and protection of their Uncle Manny, who feels the need to compensate for their parents.
“[Their] poor dad had done nothing for [them] except die before he could do much damage toiling over his religious books night and day in his junk shop in Stepney, and [their] mother was neither use nor ornament.”
When both Lenny and Miriam are diagnosed with tuberculosis, it is Uncle Manny who arranges for them to go to a countryside sanatorium for “the rest cure”, where they are instructed to surrender and be patient – no small task to these youngsters eager for life and adventure.
“Lenny’s main emotion since he’d been at the sanatorium was extreme boredom. Fear had subsided a while ago after the rough stabbing at his chest and the collapse of his lung. The tedium of days had numbed any sense of terror.”
In the ways of some isolated, manufactured collectives, the patients at the sanatorium form an odd community. Despite coming from extremely different circumstances and with little in common in the outside the world, they form deep connections to one another. Their time in the sanatorium – the months and even years of isolation and under-stimulation which make up the the majority of the book – marks them in an indelible way. They form friendships and loyalties that will span their lifetimes.
In a great sense, “The Dark Circle” is about extreme boredom, about extreme circumstances, and about the way these two forces can change one’s life forever. The characters are quixotic and charming, if not totally believable or fully formed. The story itself is fine and goes along fairly compellingly, but it has no real hook nor intrigue to keep a reader fully engaged. The final part of the book, in particular, is rather paltry. All of the story lines are tied up a little too neatly, making the ending shallow and cloying and the novel as a whole disappointing and forgettable. While there is nothing particularly wrong with the book, there is nothing outstanding, either, that merits its place among such an elite selection of extraordinary fiction.