Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Circling Song
Reviewed by David F. Beer

The Circling Song

By Russel Cruse

Published by Amazon Kindle and

This is a most unusual book. At first I was reluctant to read it because its format didn't appeal to me ,but I'm glad I overcame that block. In fact I ended up reading it twice — the second time to make sure I was catching everything, or at least not missing anything significant. The effort was well rewarded.

The author states that this book, one of three he has written, is a novella. One might quibble with this designation since the book is 161 pages long. Other novels based on WWI such as Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier, Marc Dugain's The Officers' Ward, and J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country all consist of fewer pages and claim to be novels. These books, however, are not accompanied by as much white space since they are written in the usual narrative style of a novel. Cruse's book however is one of those fairly rare books that might be designated as an epistolary novel, one where the narrative consists of a series of letters and other documents. In this case letters, fragments of journals and diaries, memoranda, communiques, a casualty form, and finally three poems all combine to portray the character of Private (later Corporal) Henry Lawrence and his experiences from First Ypres through the Battles of Loos, the Somme and Passchendaele.

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Lawrence's external experiences, harrowing as they are, are less the focus of the story than his internal ones, which are, to say the least, unique. He survives a bullet wound in the head, but the results of the wound have far-reaching consequences that mystify most around him. An army doctor in England, where Lawrence is sent to recuperate, becomes intrigued by the change that is taking place in Lawrence. To put it briefly, due to his head injury Lawrence has become a savant whose head injury has caused him to experience a neurological condition known as synesthesia. As the doctor explains in a letter to a mathematician friend,

. . . it refers to the capacity demonstrated by some individuals to sense the same stimulus in more than one way. Thus, a person would experience a sound and the sensory response might be a combination of the mundane (i.e. audible) and the less so, for example, a sight or even a scent. Imagine a musical note whose effect one could smell or see as well as hear!

This is not all however, as both the doctor and his mathematician friend (who later becomes his wife) are to discover. Lawrence's condition allows him to actually see patterns in the movement of air and sound and to gradually work out the mathematical equations that govern them. The work of Einstein, Planck, Kirchoff, Shrödinger, and Heisenberg, and the idea that the entire universe could be described in a series of mathematical equations, have all filtered into Lawrence's mind as a result of his savantism. How he finally uses his new knowledge — perhaps not as grandiosely as we might expect, but nevertheless very effectively — brings his story to an end.

Although most of us aren't used to the epistolary novel format it's surprising how the various documents that make up the chapters in The Circling Song — some quite brief — give us a sense of immediacy and also allow the tale to flow smoothly and quickly. There are a few minor subplots and brief glances at some of the familiar motifs of the war such as a terrible trench scene, the confusion of troops in battle, attitudes to shell shock, and the need for protective helmets (which were not issued to all the troops until mid-1916). The quote from George Meredith's poem "The Lark Ascending" at the front of the book reveals where the author got his title and ties in nicely with the uncanny and mystical transformation that Henry Lawrence undergoes when his head wound thrusts him into the world of synesthesia and arcane mathematics.

David F. Beer 


  1. Mr Beer,
    I came across this review quite by accident and am very gratified that you enjoyed the tale. Thank you for the kind words; it is always extremely nice to learn that one's work is appreciated.
    Very best wishes,
    Russell Cruse

  2. I read this book both in it's raw form on a writer's web site and in its published form as and ebook and have loved it from the start. How nice to see that it has been well received here. Nice.