Susan Hill Susan Hill

TB or not to be

There are dark secrets at ‘the Gwen’, a hospital for consumptives, in Linda Grant’s moving story of medical mayhem in postwar Kent

If you are 70-plus, the shadow of TB will have hung over your childhood and youth, as it did mine, and Linda Grant’s new novel strikes many a chord. My maternal aunt had the disease, and spent months in a sanatorium like the one described in The Dark Circle, but finally had a thoracotomy (removal of a lung and seven ribs). She was also given the ‘new’ wonder drug Streptomycin and together with the operation, it cured her to live until she was 86. From the sanatorium, she sent me drawings of herself lying under a blanket on the freezing terrace halfway up a mountain.

I only include these personal notes because I remember the whole drama vividly, even though I was only six or seven, and Grant’s novel, set in 1949, rings as true as if she herself had experienced life in the Gwendolyn Downie Memorial Hospital for TB patients. The descriptions of the atmosphere, the sense of sickness and timelessness and despair, the half-hearted attempts at camaraderie, the horrible medical procedures, the way everyone coughed and spat into handkerchiefs and had to take their own temperatures are exactly right — as my aunt’s letters (sparing a child nothing) attested.

London Jewish twins Lenny and Miriam are in their early twenties and apparently full of life when they both contract TB and are sent to the ‘Gwen’. They have been as close as two peas in a pod, sharing everything, including a room, from birth, until they enter the sanatorium in Kent and are separated. Their relationship, especially Lenny’s fierce, protective devotion to his sister, is unusual and moving. They are adults, they have experienced adult life in the city — and yet in some essential way they are still children.

Life in the hospital separates them and also forces them into the company of
others, either those not on full bed rest and able to eat in the canteen, or some, like Valerie (whom Miriam befriends), who lie in the cold all day on the verandah to ‘benefit’ from the fresh air.

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