In Memoriam by Alice Winn
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date: March 7, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Historical, Literary
I haven’t read a war book in quite a while as I burned out on WWII after reading so many outstanding novels on the subject. But a friend recommended In Memoriam and while I was resistant at first my 2024 reading has been tepid at best so I decided to give it a chance. And just like that, my heart was unexpectedly torn by this work of horror and tenderness, set amidst WWI, a frivolous war from which nothing was gained, but the lives of over one million young men were lost.
In Memoriam begins in 1914 at a British boarding school shortly after the country is drawn into the war. Sidney Ellwood is a handsome, slender reed of a boy who wears his heart on his sleeve and speaks mostly in lines from Keats and Tennyson. Henry Gaunt is his opposite, standing at over 6’ with the body of a footballer and a taciturn personality. They are opposites, with Ellwood always supplying the charm and fun and Gaunt the silent bystander, but somehow they are also friends. Friends dancing at the edge of something more except that at this time in Great Britain homosexuality is illegal and punishable by imprisonment.
Despite these laws, the one of the tenets of boarding school was its belief that extreme physicality and even physical abuse built character. Boys will be boys and all that, so intense friendships that veered into intimacy were not unheard of, but were definitely not spoken about. For many in their crowd, the war is an exuberant adventure to be embarked on as soon as they turn 19. They’ve learned of it in glorious poems of valor and want to experience this heroic endeavor.
Gaunt enlists first even though he hasn’t yet turned 18 and the age minimum is 19. His towering size silences any questions about his age and soon he’s in the trenches of Belgium. Three months later, after learning Gaunt was wounded, but is now back on the front lines, the idealistic Ellwood decides he can’t wait any longer. He needs not only to go to war, but to be in the same regiment as his friend. He’s 16 and his spirit is completely unprepared for both the war and the friend he finds again in the trenches.
In Memoriam lasts the span of the war, and while it largely focuses on Gaunt and Ellwood their lives continue to cross with schoolmates, although not at the social events they should have been experiencing, but in the rat and corpse infested trenches, bunkers, and foxholes of France. With each chapter, the group shrinks while the list of those appearing in their school’s honor role of the dead grows. Letters amongst them lose their bravado and good cheer as the ghastly reality of an unwinnable ground war spanning years sets in. Instead, their camaraderie remains in the letters they still write to each other, speaking of the things they can never share with family—the constant assault on the senses, the sounds of bombs launching and landing, the screams of the wounded, the stench of corpses lying unburied through the seasons, and the feel of the unholy mud composed of human waste, filthy water, and blood that is everywhere.
Winn plays out the war’s futility, madness, and bravery through these letters and school bulletins with the implacable momentum of the war she’s describing. At no point does the narrative go slack; her prose is taut throughout. But while this is a novel about a war, it is so much more. There’s a nobility found, not just in the tragedy, but in the quiet beauty, the moments that sear the soul. In Memoriam wrings the heart with the words, unspoken, overflowing off the page as they can’t flow between each other, of these men who were never allowed to openly share their feelings.
It’s the denial of love between these strong, brave young men that makes the story shred like shrapnel. For Gaunt and Ellwood in particular, but also for the other characters who loved each other beyond the bounds of friendship. None ever able to openly acknowledge their feelings, either of joy or of grief when the loved one was killed. That such a repression of emotion becomes such an expressive novel is literary alchemy and makes In Memoriam a stunningly singular achievement.
… we carried our white man’s burden dutifully, enlightening Indians—Indians! They who built the Taj Mahal! And Egyptians! For we knew better than their pyramids! We swarmed through Africa and America because we were better than they, of course we were, we were making war humane, and now it has broken down and they are dragged into hell with us. We have doomed the world with our advancements, with our democracy that is so much better than whatever they’ve thought of, with our technology that will so improve their lives…
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