by Alice Winn
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Pub Date 07 Mar 2023 | Archive Date 06 Apr 2023
“In Memoriam is the story of a great tragedy, but it is also a moving portrait of young love, and there is often a lightness to the book.”—The New York Times
It’s 1914, and World War I is ceaselessly churning through thousands of young men on both sides of the fight. The violence of the front feels far away to Henry Gaunt, Sidney Ellwood and the rest of their classmates, safely ensconced in their idyllic boarding school in the English countryside. News of the heroic deaths of their friends only makes the war more exciting.
Gaunt, half German, is busy fighting his own private battle--an all-consuming infatuation with his best friend, the glamorous, charming Ellwood--without a clue that Ellwood is pining for him in return. When Gaunt's family asks him to enlist to forestall the anti-German sentiment they face, Gaunt does so immediately, relieved to escape his overwhelming feelings for Ellwood. To Gaunt's horror, Ellwood rushes to join him at the front, and the rest of their classmates soon follow. Now death surrounds them in all its grim reality, often inches away, and no one knows who will be next.
An epic tale of both the devastating tragedies of war and the forbidden romance that blooms in its grip, In Memoriam is a breathtaking debut.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 38 members
There's probably a poem for this feeling inside me out there somewhere but not in my head, which is utterly empty and numb.
This book. What a masterpiece.
I've read many fictions about wars. Depending on the author's prose and the theme of the story, the same war can be portrayed with different focuses and in different ways. But I've never read a version of WWI that is as bleak, gloomy, heart-wrenching, and horrific as this book. In this story, we follow a bunch of English boys in an elite boarding school. When we first met them, they were spoiled, annoying, boyishly gallant, and so, so full of life. They spent their days squandering money, hitting each other, writing bad poems, and their greatest agony in life was catching feeling for their friend. After all, homosexuality was still illegal in England at the time. Still, to the boys, England was the best nation in the world that should rightfully colonize everyone else, and these boys just can't wait to be in the front line, fighting for their country, becoming the heroes they only ever read about in classics and romantic poems.
And then, one-by-one, they eventually enlisted, and what followed was the kind of horror unlike anything they ever imagined. The story did not shy away from the most graphic depiction of any kinds of violence. The prose is at times very matter-of-fact and dry, which somehow makes the truth more truthful and hits that much harder. Alice Winn is a genius at using different types of proses and formats to construct the roller coaster of emotions in this story. The juxtaposition between the straightforward facts and the flowery poems gave me whiplash. The meaningful switches from standard narration to letters to newsletter managed to condition me to hold my breath in dread. It was frightfully immersive to look through the list of the deceased and wounded with one eye closed, praying that the characters you care for had not died.
Despite the immersive setting, this book is very character-driven. And it's a testament to the author's amazing skill when every character she crafted broke my heart one way or another. The protagonists, Henry Gaunt and Sidney Ellwood, had been best friends and mutually pining after each other for so many years. Their relationship, like everything else, is affected by the war and their traumas. Their emotions are ugly, their yearning raw, and their love seemingly pointless. But theirs is a love story amidst hatred, of gentleness amidst violence. It is all the ugliness that makes their story beautiful. I love them both so, so much.
I don't know how to talk about the supporting characters without having a breakdown. This book didn't turn me into a sobbing mess, but it carved a total void in my heart where some characters - even those that only appears for a half chapter - had been alive and then gone. It's the first time I understand that, if I can still cry because of a book, then I'm quite alright, because when I'm truly devastated, there's only silence, which was what happened when I turned the last page of this book. The war and the characters have all felt so real, so close. I don't think I've fully come out of it yet. And I don't know if I ever will.
What a glorious mixture this book is. This historical tale manages to combine a very realistic look at war with some visceral emotion regarding relationships.
I love when tales feel timeless and while this story is firmly set in 1914 - there's so much in it that will resonate with readers at any age.
And the relationship - from initial tentative fumbling to comradery in the trenches. My heart!
Fantastic, heart-shattering, just harrowing. I could keep going, but I'm sure you get the gist. What a great (but obviously sad) depiction of the war and the horrors that come with it. The characters were wonderful. I'll recommend this to everyone.
I loved Alice Winn's In Memoriam. I could not wait to return to reading it after work and I was horrified that it was going to end. Winn's evocation of World War I--particularly the trenches--is as good as anything I've ever read. It feels much more like a contemporary account written in the 1910s than a piece of historical fiction gazing back over 100 years. I loved the characters. I loved the plot. I loved the romance. The worst experience of my week was finding out that Winn is a debut author and I'm stuck hoping that she writes something else. She had better. I will be thinking about this book for years to come.
Wow. This book moved me, astonished me, enlightened me, wrecked me. I finished it in the middle of the night, huddled around the light of my Kindle, because I simply. could. not. put. it. down.
To state the obvious: This is a difficult story, necessarily full of violence and gore and cruelty. And it's not something I would typically gravitate toward. Many years in journalism covering various conflicts, even from the safety of a newsroom half a world away, left me feeling as if I've read enough accounts of war to last a lifetime. But I'm so glad that I requested an ARC of "In Memoriam" on a trusted recommendation, because I'll remember this book not as a war story, but as a love story.
Gaunt and Ellwood's relationship is what carried me through the book, just as it carries them through the horrors they experience. I was sobbing at certain points and laughing out loud at others. For all the gravity and gruesomeness, it's also a very tender story.
The literary references alone are stunning, from Tennyson (of course), to Shakespeare, to Thucydides to George Eliot (there's a running joke about how the Red Cross keeps sending copies of "Adam Bede" to the front). And the newspaper inserts work very well and didn't, for me, interrupt the flow of the narrative.
I highlighted an absurd number of quotes that I won't share from the uncorrected proof, but the prose really is lovely. It balances bravery and cowardice, love and indifference, fate and choice, kindness and malice. I was reminded of a line from Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," one of the only war books I remember well decades after reading it:
“War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love."
And sometimes, poetry.
"How vain am I! / How should he love a thing so low?”
-Tennyson, "In Memoriam"
I sat down to start a few pages of this haunting, gorgeous novel and ended up staying up until 3 am, fully held in its iron grip. This is a brutal read, but it’s one I’ll be thinking about for a long time. Winn skillfully dives deeply into the pain of war and all the scars (both emotional and physical) that it leaves with prose that had me going back to re-read sentences just because of how perfect they were sculpted. The romance is tender and rendered so wonderfully with love and deep affection for two wounded & flawed characters. This will become an instant classic in the genre!