LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
On the floor above, Miriam was screaming that she wouldn’t get undressed. She would not take off her clothes, she wouldn’t take off so much as her shoes if this was what they were going to do to her. ‘And not a chance I’ll take my knickers off.’
She was wearing a cherry-red felt coat and a cherry-red beret pinned gingerly onto the back of her head, not to disarrange her foam of stiff blue-black curls. Her lips were painted with postbox-red lipstick. In this room she looked like a giant strawberry frozen inside an ice cube.
After a short struggle, and a lot of yelling, the girl was led out and settled into her bed by Matron. She appeared wearing a spectacularly vulgar garment, an artificial silk nightdress and negligee covered in pink nylon ruffles. Her breasts without a bra pushed out ahead of her like a pair of off-white cats curled on a sofa. She was holding a scarf and a pair of sheepskin mittens that Matron had issued her with.
commentary: I love Linda Grant, and she has featured on the blog a lot. This is her new novel, and it is an absolute corker. I read it a while ago but didn’t write about it straightaway, for a reason I will explain shortly, and it has lived in my mind very solidly since then, I keep thinking about it.
The story starts in post-war London, a young brother and sister racing round, living life to the full, with hope and enthusiasm and possibilities. They come from a textbook Jewish family, live in the centre of the city, and are as close as brother and sister can be. So you think it is going to be one kind of book, but then it isn’t. After a brief bright colourful section where they interact with all kinds of current goings-on (post-war fascists, a flower shop, national service) they are both diagnosed with TB and whisked off to a sanatorium in Kent.
The book is a great novel in terms of presenting a number of different characters for us to get to know and understand, to follow their stories. But it also gives an extraordinary picture of life in a sanatorium, I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea what this was like, and I can’t be alone in that. This is just after WW2, and a new treatment, streptomycin, is going to become available for TB – but no-one is certain about it, and there is a very limited supply. This thread slides through the book, and there is an urgency about how to choose who will get it, but we can see it is not going to save most of these people.
The matter-of-fact life at the sanatorium is absolutely horrifying. People were sent there for years ‘five years is considered an effective stay’: people simply dropped out of their real lives. Mothers didn’t see their children. Some patients were abandoned by their families and had no visitors. Miriam and Lenny are among the first NHS patients to come in: most of the others are paying privately. The treatments sound appalling, and completely useless. People had total bedrest, and slept in wards open to the air. There are some very dubious-sounding operations.
To the nurses and medical staff, the patients were always occupying points on a calendar closer or farther away from death.The patients build their own lives, and it all sounds somewhat like a prisoner-of-war camp, or the ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The only thing you can think is ‘it’s not a concentration camp.’ There is a desperate sadness, it is absolutely heart-wrenching, and carries complete conviction – Grant obviously did her research very carefully.
Of course, this tragic reality is the perfect setting for a novel, with the different stories intersecting, with the clash of cultures, with the women’s differing attitudes to their appearances, with the excitement of the arrival of the untrustworthy American – and Grant makes the most of all this. There are discussions of makeup, card schools, a visit to the races, radio and dancing. The reading aloud of books was one of the most compelling strands. There is a weird adventure when two of the patients find out exactly what is going on in a secret separate floor of the hospital. Everyone swaps stories, and there is a very entertaining description of shoplifting.
There are occasional chapters looking at what is happening to the patients’ connections outside, and these all seem very strange and inconsequential, almost too bright, after the flat whiteness of the wards: the reader has become institutionalized too.
One of the things Grant does remarkably well is clothes descriptions, but there isn’t so much in the hospital, just the glimpses of the others outside. I loved this: Lenny’s girlfriend Gina puts on
her spring coat which was glazed powder-blue cotton and her best pink crepe dress and her high-heeled shoes and blew on the gold of her cross and polished it with her sleeve and brushed her hair and put it up in a French pleat.
Another young woman on the outside goes swimming in a ‘new two-tone yellow and black suit, which made her look like a wasp’ – in another recent entry there was a black and yellow bathing suit, and I was surprised that the author said ‘that this made her look like some sort of strange animal, perhaps a cross between a chimp and a zebra’ – I’d expected a wasp, as Grant confirms.
I thought this was a wonderful book, one of the best I read last year. I was glad (no spoilers) that the ending was not as harsh as I had feared and half-expected.
The reason I didn’t write about it straightaway was that after finishing it I thought that this might be the moment to read Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann’s enormous novel set in a Swiss sanatorium at the beginning of the 20th century. I thought if I didn’t read it now I never would. And so I have, though it took a while. A blogpost will follow…
Negligee lady is Arlene Dahl – this is my goto photo for this kind of illustration.
Red coat and hat from Kristin’s photostream. Pale coat and dress from the same source.