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Book Reviews,  books

In Memoriam by Alice Winn- A Review

In Memoriam by Alice Winn is a beautifully written novel that will pull you to pieces. It provides a stark contrast between the insanity of war and the purity of love. It follows the journey of two young men, Gaunt and Ellwood, from an idyllic English boarding school to the trenches of World War One.

Upon finishing reading In Memoriam, I found it lingered in my thoughts for days. This novel stood out from others, compelling me to pause reading other books to fully come to terms with its story. This is not like me. I often jump from book to book, or have several books on the go at the same time.

In Memoriam eloquently explores themes around class, sexuality, and privilege in a thought-provoking manner. The novel begins in the summer of 1914, at Preshute, an elite boarding school attended by classmates Gaunt and Ellwood. At that time, the concept of war was seen as an adventurous game, far removed from reality and viewed through the lens of Lord Tennyson’s poetry.

One aspect that sets this book apart is its strong characterisation. While I’m not a fan of romance, I found myself engrossed in the slow-burning love story between Ellwood and Gaunt. I felt I knew the two boys personally. They wormed themselves into my consciousness and I rooted for them all the way through.

In Memoriam also highlights the wartime propaganda prevalent during World War I, from the use of white feathers to shame underage men into enlisting, to the glorification of soldiers’ deaths. It also sheds light on the lack of understanding around Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder, which explains why soldiers suffering during the war were often labelled as cowards. Alice Winn takes the reader into the trenches with the characters, so that we can comprehend what they are experiencing.

This narrative prompted me to deepen my understanding of World War One and its events. The Battle of the Somme is depicted vividly. Winn’s prose captures the tragic consequences of high command reacting too slowly to the failure of preparation, leading to the loss of thousands of lives. The amount of research that has gone into writing In Memoriam is evident, especially in this scene.

Poetry is another theme that runs throughout the book, which is named after Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam A.H.H Ellwood uses poetry to communicate his feelings, and at points, poetry is his main form of communication. The character Ellwood is loosely based on Siegfried Sassoon, as he quotes Tennyson and makes up his own poetry. It is these verses that underline the struggle of being a young gay man at the time the book was set.

Despite being a debut novel, the book is deftly written and Alice Winn inhabits the world inside her novel. It is a doorstopper of book, with a vast cast of characters. Yet it never becomes overblown and keeps a streak of realism all the way through. The lack of sentimentality is a key feature of the novel. War is never romanticised.

In Memoriam is a heart-breaking and devastating novel. A remarkable debut.

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