Shortlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Prize, the latest novel from Linda Grant is set in post-war Britain. Eighteen year old Lenny and twin sister Miriam are diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent away from their East End London home to a sanatorium in Kent: the Gwendolyn Downie Memorial Hospital for the Care of Chronic Cases of Tuberculosis (known as the Gwendo). Originally designed with wealthy private patients in mind, the brand new NHS has resulted in all sorts of characters being thrown together, their illness the only thing they have in common.
I found life at the sanatorium fascinating, though for the patients it was incredibly dull. Miriam’s roommate is Valerie, an Oxford graduate. They are prescribed the rest cure, which involves sitting out on the veranda in all weather, taking the air. Lenny is sent off for a pneumothorax injection which collapses one of his lungs, the idea being that with rest the lung can recover. The worst treatment offered (as a last resort) is the thoracoplasty operation where ribs are removed in order to put the lung to rest. There is talk of a new wonder drug, streptomycin, which it is said can cure the disease, but there is no knowing when this will become available to the Gwendo.
Valerie alleviates her boredom through reading, and begins to educate Lenny and Miriam through the reading aloud of novels, the twins particularly fascinated with Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Cliques have formed, people of similar backgrounds, such as the air force officers, sticking together. The mothers are heart-breaking – being kept away from their families for so long that when they do go home their children don’t know who they are. Lady Anne is a member of the aristocracy, a survivor from the first days of the Gwendo. Most mysterious is Hannah Spiegel, a German woman who keeps herself to herself but watches everything around her. Arriving later, Persky is an American merchant seaman who shakes things up, getting rid of the Strauss records that have been inflicted upon them via the hospital’s Wireless Committee and replacing them with rock and roll.
Grant’s writing is effortless and unforced. Characters speak authentically, and her research seems impeccable but never too evident. As the disease develops there are some incredibly touching moments; patients being sent home to die, the decisions to be made when enough streptomycin is provided for a trial of only six patients, the discovery of a hidden children’s ward. I only wish that the novel had perhaps ended a little earlier. While it was interesting to see what happened to the patients later on, I felt this last fifty pages or so didn’t hold my attention as strongly as life in the sanatorium. Saying that, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and it definitely earns its place on the Bailey’s shortlist.