It’s 1950 and two years into the newly formed NHS. Gwendoline Downie Memorial Hospital for the Care of Chronic Cases of Tuberculosis originally reserved for the ‘middle class or better‘ sees an onslaught of a new type of patient – a type which shakes up the establishment.
Grant takes us through the latter decade of Tuberculoses’ (TB) hold on the nation seeing its grip go from ‘a death sentence to a course of antibiotics‘ by following a group of people from different backgrounds all brought together by the disease residing in the sanatorium. We see love, fear, hope and bravery all throughout this novel. It is simply one of those stories where you instantly fall in love with the characters from the privileged, the mothers, to veterans all coping with the incessant boredom of living in a sanatorium completely and utterly submissive to the disease.
The arrival of Lenny and Miriam and later Arthur coincides with the rumour of a ‘miracle cure‘ which sees the patients fight against the foremost attribute considered by its resident doctor, Dr Limb, for being a good patient: ‘being patient‘. We see the agonising and difficult selction process Dr Limb is forced to do when chossing who will first trial the medicine. The consequences of his decision ends with his career and the livelihood of some of his patients.
One of the most interseting aspects of this book was Dr Limb’s profound inner conflict when realising that this medicine may eradicate the disease in its entirety for he believes that as ‘TB was as old as time, as least as old as the human race…its longevity must be respected‘. For a doctor who has spent most of his professional career resident in this place treating patients of this disease you can see why he feels threatened by the end of the disease.
This book reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey not just because it is based in a sanatorium but also the need for order and control required by patients and medical staff alike. Collapsing lungs, freezing conditions and lonely existences in order to prevent excitement all may seem to us now as complete nonsensical ways to prevent the advancement of any disease but, as with the lobotomies featured in Cuckoo’s Nest, those were the acceptable and known prevention methods of that time. On reading this novel, I was shocked at how recently TB was such a force to be reckoned with.
A truly engrossing story – one which is surely going to find its way to the shortlist.
Have any of you read this novel? What did you think?
Favourite quote: ‘No, no one can explain [a book], it’s not possible to do so. You experience it in your way, it’s a labyrinth you must pass through but a labyrinth is yourself‘