Reviewed by Lucy Middlemass
The Circling Song
The Circling Song tells the story of Henry Lawrence, a WW1 private who gains incredible mathematical and memory abilities from a gunshot wound to the head. He is assessed and argued over by experts, and some of them believe the way he sees the world is revolutionary. As his most supportive doctor writes to him, “I remain in darkness and your world appears to shine”.
The story is told through correspondence between his doctors and friends, and through diary entries and autobiographies. But don’t be put off.
It’s skilfully put together and easy to follow. The letters and journals create intimacy between reader and characters, and their writing styles are distinctive. It’s possible to see relationships change as characters protect their interests or strive to understand Henry’s gift. I particularly enjoyed the letters from Charles, the wounded airman who wants to fly again. The occasional less interesting letters are brief, and their inclusion clarifies the plot.
Serving beside Private Henry in the trenches is young George Lear, whose letters home are touching and whose dramatisations of their living conditions are sometimes uncomfortably vivid. His descriptions bring freshness to a familiar horror. His relationship with Henry is also one of the loveliest, especially when Henry tries to convince George he can think his way out of pain.
The historical stuff is convincing, and feels secondary to the characterisation and plot. Much of the language is enjoyable, for example, note is made that the enemy has “made a fist of it”. It might have been awkward to bring together these aspects of the story with the technical explanations of Henry’s savant abilities, but it works. Welcome character mathematician Caroline Charteris uses imagery to explain it all simply and clearly.
Recommended for its unusual plot, effective presentation and well-defined characters.
The Circling Song