In Memoriam by Alice Winn

In Memoriam is a novel that tells the love story between two schoolboys-turned-soldiers during the First World War. For Sidney Ellwood and Henry Gaunt, when war breaks out in 1914 it feels far away from them at their boarding school, where their main problem is the fact they both believe their love for the other is unrequited. However, when Gaunt’s German mother asks him to lie about his age and enlist to protect the family from anti-German sentiment, he agrees, and finds himself at the front facing the horrors of war. Not long later, Ellwood joins him, and their world of schoolboy troubles seems miles away, even as more of their classmates turn up around them.

In many ways, this book is exactly as you’d expect, similar to other First World War novels and especially those that depict love stories. There’s lots of historical material woven into the plot, as the afterword explains, and a good amount of depiction of the complications around war, like fighting in one despite being against it. The move from schoolboys to soldiers and the varied ways in which the characters react to this is also very interesting, from Ellwood and Gaunt’s respective literary interests clashing with the realities of war to some of their schoolmates’ jovial reactions.

I had trepidation reading the novel as personally for me the combination of the tormented slow love story and the threat of death looming over everything doesn’t always make for a book I enjoy reading, but I did appreciate what the narrative did with the characters and the love story, managing to encapsulate horror and brutality, but also perseverance and small tender moments, making it less unrelentingly bleak and heartbreaking than I was expecting from the title and my assumptions. Thanks particularly to the characters and relationships, In Memoriam is likely to be popular with a lot of people. It is a love story that looks at war, class, and historical queerness, with a narrative that’s quite dramatic and maybe too neat, but still works for the genre.