There are some very strong debut novels which have already appeared in the first quarter of 2023- here’s another one. I haven’t read that many World War I novels- I do have a little collection of fiction, non-fiction and poetry sitting on my shelves which I haven’t got around to. I find it easy to put off reading about this time in history as it is so grim. I was, however, intrigued by a strong publisher’s push and a description by Maggie O’Farrell as this as a “devastating love story between two young men on the Western Front.” I decided to grit my teeth and get on with what I suspected would be an emotional reading experience.
We first meet Sidney Ellwood and Henry Gaunt as sixth formers at Preshute, a public boarding school, perusing the school paper which produces a Roll of Honour for those killed, wounded and missing in the early years of the war, a conflict which you know they are inevitably going to be drawn into. To begin with they are somewhat glib and their relationship is both caring and detached, maintaining a public indifference which masks a longing for one another. Already they are children acting the part of grown-ups but nothing like their need to function in a completely different way once they sign up.
The description of battles, of everyday life in the trenches, of the limited chances of survival is exceptionally strong. The action at times becomes overpowering. A prisoner of war sequence is written as gripping thriller. These boys should be rabbits-in-the-headlights, it is extraordinary to read how they were forced to adapt to these horrendous new experiences. Life at home is also conveyed well, the anger the young soldiers must have felt towards their parents’ generation bothered by petty trivial matters without any understanding of what is being endured. The young women handing white feathers to those too young to enlist or on leave and not in uniform I found absolutely chilling. From time to time as the war advances further issues of the school newspaper’s Roll Of Honour makes for very sobering reading.
I’m not sure how I feel about the author embracing aspects of the First World War that have become so familiar they are in danger of losing their power- the class divisions in the trenches, war poets, the footballs -at one point I became nervous that she would use the WWI football anecdote everyone knows but she states in her historical note at the end that she thought this would be too much. I wasn’t totally convinced by her portrayal of the relationship between Gaunt and Ellwood and this for me was a little more tricky. I appreciate I’m looking at a same-sex relationship from a modern perspective but I felt a little more could have been made of the issues regarding these very young men, forced to operate in a horrific adult world and exploring their feelings and sexuality within this. In the war scenes their youth came across so strongly, in the love scenes less so. I just think the balance was slightly off-kilter with these characters which meant I did not feel their relationship came across as real as I had hoped.
Reading about this war it is hard to comprehend how Europe survived after this. I imagine it was largely, hard to believe this in our modern world, was because it wasn’t spoken about. My grandmother lost a brother in the Somme, I cannot remember her ever talking about him. This is the reason why, even a century plus on, I think it is so important that we have writers of the calibre of Alice Winn who can so vividly bring this dreadful time to life.
In Memoriam will be published by Viking on 9th March 2023. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.