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.
I don't know much about life in sanatoriums, either, Moira. I can only imagine how bad it must have been, and it sounds as though Grant certainly did her research to find out about them. I think you have a point, too. A place like that, with all sorts of different people coming in, each with a different story, does form a great context for a story...ReplyDelete
It is - it's the perfect setting for a novel about different characters (would make a great crime story setting too) and Grant really makes the most of it. Wonderful book.Delete
Years ago I read a fascinating book by Betty MacDonald, The Plague and I, a real-life account of precisely this: a stay in a TB sanatorium in the 1940s. It is both funny and horrifying.ReplyDelete
I once did some research on stepfamilies in 19th fiction. I looked at mortality statistics and discovered that TB was the single greatest cause of death in the 19th century, especially among young people - more prevalent than death in childbirth. It was an absolute scourge. This does sound a fascinating account.
Aha! Watch this space - I discovered The Plague and I too. I know, the facts about TB are so depressing, and so horrible. It is hard for us to imagine the grim reality. Grant does a great job of making a good but real story out of it.Delete
There was a lot of TB around during and immediately after WWII, and my mother has reminded me that once streptomycin became available, the sanitoria emptied in months -- it seemed like a miracle.Delete
It must have been an incredible time. A couple of my relations were in sanitoria - I really regret not having asked them about it, it was just a part of family history, they never talked about it.Delete
I recommend that you look up Knock and Wait by Gwen Grant for an alternative take on the NHS sanatorium at almost exactly the same time. Children's book, absolutely bloody hilarious, Grant has a very unique writing style. It's one of those books that never fails to make me shriek with laughter and even to think back on it, I'm chuckling to myself over it. The heroine is utterly anarchic, iconoclastic, and absolutely marvellous.ReplyDelete
And I've discovered that it's the middle book in a trilogy so I need to go buy the others. If they're anywhere near as anarchic as Knock and Wait, I'm going to be howling with laughter and crying with mirth over them.
I really do think there's a lot of autobiographical experience being drawn on for that book, just a sense that she had been through similar experiences otherwise she couldn't really write about it with such detail and a sense of having been there.Delete
I'd only read one other book by Gwen Grant, the Lily Pickle Band, and despite the obviously same writing style and same laugh out loud effect, and the same ability to lodge unforgettably in the brain, I didn't make the connection until I looked up Gwen's bibliography and went OHHHH OF COURSE.
In that book one of the girls, a particularly galumphing type, horrifies the assembled parents at a variety show by trotting onto the stage wrapped in bits of old net curtain and announcing she's doing the Dance of the Seven Veils, and I'm giggling at the memory even though I've not read it in probably 25 years.
We're never told exactly why Gwen's heroine had to go to an Open Air Hospital, but I think, from the clues, it was for chronic anaemia as there's a reference to her blood not being bright red enough and she was always exhausted and tired. So she got sent away for a year...Delete
I didn't recognize the name, but I recognized the style, and was able to check up and find that I read a book called Private! Keep Out! by this author which had a hilarious strand on dancing lessons or shows or something similar. OK, I have ordered the one you mention! It has a remarkable cover with a tiger on it. I'll be interested to see what year it is going to be. It is going to be the season of the sanatorium on the blog...Delete
Knock and Wait is the next one after Private! Keep Out! - I look forward to seeing what you think of it! Apparently the third book is set in 1950, when she was 12 years old, so I'm guessing "Knock and Wait" must be set around 1948ReplyDelete
And, OMG, the TIGER!!! (I just had to stick a cushion over my face as it's too late to laugh out loud in a shared house...)Delete
Excellent - can't wait.Delete
I'm slightly alarmed how much I can remember, thinking back now.Delete
"I'd rather read about Desperate Dan than about posh old Angela and Fenella and Jennifer who do nothing but eat at night when they're supposed to be in bed asleep. Mind you, they don't do anything very much more interesting in the daytime..."
That quote made such an impact on me, I think it was the first time that as a child reader I'd really encountered such clear cut anarchy and the skewering of tropes...
I loved the posh girls, even though couldn't have been more different from my own world, but can see the charm of the quote. A book arrived today and I had my hopes up it was Gwen with a quick turnaround, but nothing half so interesting!Delete
Oh, I loved posh old Angela and Fenella and Jennifer too, but it was the first time I'd really realised that you could really take the mickey out of stuff you liked, without it meaning you were betraying yourself, and that it was absolutely fine to laugh at yourself and the things you liked.Delete
Yes absolutely, take your point exactly!Delete
The only film that really features a TB sanatorium is the 1962 TWICE AROUND THE DAFFODILS. It does turn up very occasionally on the TV. It was based on a stage play called RING FOR CATTY from the end of the '50s. It was the inspiration for the more famous CARRY ON NURSE, and this is something of a companion piece, with the same director, the same scriptwriter, and a number of the same cast such as Kenneth Williams and Joan Sims. The distributors attempted to suggest that it might be part of the CARRY ON series, although it is quite different. It's more of a romantic drama with humorous asides rather than an out-and-out comedy.ReplyDelete
Do you know, I thought of that film while I was reading, and wondered if that was what it was. I saw it as a young person and loved it, without being aware, I think, of what illnesses they suffered from. I would love to see it again - it turned up on TV a year or so back and I recorded it but [cue family stress] apparently someone deleted it. I must look for it again. I remember it as being funny and charming and touching at the same time, always my favourite traits!Delete
Just found a DVD and ordered it...Delete
Will look for this one, thank you. When I was young I went to a writers workshop which was held in an old TB sanitarium. in Fort Qu'appelle, Saskatchewan. The teenagers (many of whom were there for music programs etc.) all stayed on the old wards--small bedrooms that opened onto enormous porches where the beds could be wheeled out for "open-air" sleeping. It was a bizarre and haunted place.ReplyDelete
Such compelling stories - you can see why any writer would be tempted. And those outside wards. I felt cold just reading about them.Delete
Just last year I saw a documentary about TB in North America. It sounded very similar. Apparently, the only thing that seemed to slightly help was fresh air, so they went overboard on it. Most of the older Adirondacks resorts in upstate New York were originally TB sanitoria. And, yes, once you become aware of it, you start to notice how many people died of TB when you read histories and biographies. I wonder if antibiotics being such a miraculous -- and sudden -- cure is what caused it to fall out of the popular imagination as the nightmare scourge it was then.ReplyDelete
I know - exactly, I'm seeing it everywhere now, and remembering many other references. I'd just been reading about the Brontes and they suffered...Delete
P.S. I meant to comment on the picture of Arlene Dahl. I only remember as (what seemed to me as a young kid) the ancient lady who was one of the regular panelists on the "What's My Line?" TV show. She was quite va-va-va-voom as a younger woman!Delete
Yes,I think she was very much what we call a starlet in the UK, is it the same in US. She sounds great fun.Delete
Starlet, yes, the same word here. There was another aging starlet on that panel -- Kitty Carlisle. I only ever saw her in one movie, "A Night at the Opera" with the Marx Brothers. Television must have been such a boon to these kinds of actors whose careers were petering out.Delete
Oh yes, and there was an idea that proper actors would never want to do TV - but as you say, must have been a lifeline to many.Delete
This sounds a very good book that I don't know that I can bring myself to read. Interesting and eye-opening but too depressing. I was looking at other things she wrote and there is Remind Me Who I Am, Again, about her mother's dementia, which would be a good thing for me to read ... but might be devastating. She doesn't write about easy subjects.ReplyDelete
No, and she is honest and straightforward, but very entertaining. She is one of my favourite writers. But yes, the subject matter of this one is hard. Did you ever see her I Murdered My Library? REsonates with all of us with too many books, and is short, a Kindle Single maybe.Delete
Yes, I did read I Murdered My Library, and Glen did too. We both liked because of always having to move so many books (and because we both love books). Not that we have changed living quarters that often over the years, but that just means more books stack up.Delete
After I'd written the comment I thought I remembered that you had... I did enjoy that. But then I gaze at my books...Delete