In Memoriam by Alice Winn: Review & Author Event
I read In Memoriam by Alice Winn last month, then had the chance to see the author in conversation at Hungerford Town Hall, an event hosted by Hungerford Bookshop, on Friday evening. Here’s what I thought of the novel, which is on my Best of 2023 list.
Heartstopper on the Western Front; swoon! It’s literary fiction set in the trenches of WWI, yes, but also a will-they-won’t they romance that opens at an English boarding school. Oh they will (have sex, that is), before the one-third point, but the lingering questions are: will Sidney Ellwood and Henry Gaunt both acknowledge this is love and not just sex, as it is for many teenage boys at their school (either consensually, as buddies; or forced by bullies); and will one or both survive the war? “It was ridiculous, incongruous for Ellwood to be bandying about words like ‘love’ when they were preparing to venture out into No Man’s Land.”
Winn is barely past 30 (and looks like a Victorian waif in her daguerreotype-like author photo), yet keeps a tight control of her tone and plot in this debut novel. She depicts the full horror of war, with detailed accounts of battles at Loos, Ypres and the Somme, and the mental health effects on soldiers, but in between there is light-heartedness: banter, friendship, poetry. Some moments are downright jolly. I couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that Adam Bede is the only novel available and most of them have read it four times. Gaunt is always the more pessimistic of the two, while Ellwood’s initially flippant sunniness darkens through what he sees and suffers.
I only learned from the Acknowledgements and Historical Note that Preshute is based on Marlborough College, a posh school local to me that Winn attended, and that certain particulars are drawn from Siegfried Sassoon, as well as other war literature. It’s clear the book has been thoroughly, even obsessively, researched. But Winn has a light touch with it, and characters who bring social issues into the narrative aren’t just 2D representatives of them but well rounded and essential: Gaunt (xenophobia), Ellwood (antisemitism), Hayes (classism), Devi (racism); not to mention disability and mental health for several.
I also loved how Ellwood is devoted to Tennyson and often quotes from his work, including the book-length elegy In Memoriam itself. This plus the “In Memoriam” columns of the school newspaper give the title extra resonance. I thought I was done with war fiction, but really what I was done with was worthy, redundant Faulks-ian war fiction. This was engaging, thrilling (a prison escape!), and, yes, romantic. (Public library)
Readalike: The New Life by Tom Crewe, another of my early favourites of 2023, is set in a similar time period and also considers homosexual relationships. It, too, has epistolary elements and feels completely true to the historical record.
Some favourite lines:
“If Ellwood were a girl, he might have held his hand, kissed his temple. He might have bought a ring and tied their lives together. But Ellwood was Ellwood, and Gaunt had to be satisfied with the weight of his head on his shoulder.”
“Gaunt wished the War had been what Ellwood wanted it to be. He wished they could have ridden across a battlefield on horseback, brandishing a sword alongside their gallant king. He put on his gas mask. His men followed.”
Buy In Memoriam from Bookshop.org [affiliate link]
Winn is in the UK on a short book tour; although she is English, she now lives in Brooklyn and recently had a baby. She was in conversation with AJ West, the author of The Spirit Engineer, also set on the cusp of WWI. Unrecognizable from her author photo – now blonde with glasses – she is petite rather than willowy. As I was leaving, two ladies remarked to each other how articulate she was. Indeed, she was well spoken and witty and, I expect, has always been precocious and a high achiever. I think she’s 32. Before this she wrote three novels that remain unpublished. She amazed us all by admitting she wrote the bulk of In Memoriam in just two weeks, pausing only to research trench warfare, then edited it for a year and a half.
West asked her about the genesis of the novel and she explained her obsession with the wartime newspapers of Sassoon’s school and then the letters sent home by soldiers, tracking the shift in tenor from early starry-eyed gallantry to feeling surrounded by death. She noted that it was a struggle for her to find a balance between the horrors of the Front and the fact that these young men come across in their written traces as so funny. She got that balance just right.
Was she being consciously anti-zeitgeist in focusing on privileged white men rather than writing women and minorities back into the narrative, as is so popular with publishers today, West asked? She demurred, but added that she wanted to achieve something midway between being of that time and a 2023 point-of-view in terms of the sexuality. Reading between the lines and from secondary sources, she posited that it was perhaps easier to get away with homosexuality than one might think, in that it wasn’t expected and so long as it was secret, temporary (before marrying a woman), or an experiment, it was tolerated. However, she took poetic licence in giving Gaunt and Ellwood supportive friends.
Speaking of … West (a gay man) jokingly asked Winn if she is actually a gay man, because she got their experiences and feelings spot on. She said that she has some generous friends who helped her with the authenticity of the sex scenes. In the novel she has Ellwood interpret Tennyson’s In Memoriam as crypto-homosexual, but scholars do not believe that it is; Gaunt’s twin sister Maud also, unconsciously in that case, has a Tennysonian name. This was in response to an audience question; this plus another one asking if Winn had read The New Life reassured me that my reaction was well founded! (Yes, she has, and will in fact be in conversation with Crewe in London on the 23rd. She’s also appearing at Hay Festival.)
If you’ve read the book and/or are curious, Winn revealed the inspirations for her three main characters, the real people who are “in their DNA,” as she put it: Gaunt = Robert Graves (half-German, interest in the Greek classics); Ellwood = Sassoon; Maud = Vera Brittain. She read a 5-minute passage incorporating a school scene between Gaunt and Sandys and a letter from the Front. She spoke a little too quickly and softly, such that I was glad I was within the first few rows. However, I’m sure this is a new-author thing and, should you be so lucky as to see her speak in future, you will be as impressed as I was.