In Memoriam: A Novel

  • By Alice Winn
  • Knopf
  • 400 pp.

Young men grapple with carnage — and forbidden love — in the trenches of WWI.

In Memoriam: A Novel

The Duke of Westminster reportedly gave credit to British boarding schools for his defeat of Napoleon. In her debut novel, Alice Winn makes the case that Waterloo wasn’t the only battle won at Eton. In Memoriam tells the story of a pair of English schoolboys — both barely 20 by the end of the book — who are in love with each other but cannot declare it. They only learn to be openly affectionate when they’re reunited amidst the horrors of a World War I battlefield.

The dilemma of gay men thrown into the Great War is, of course, well-worked material. In addition to the actual lives and writings of Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, J.R. Ackerley, and Wilfred Owen, there is Pat Barker’s brilliant Regeneration trilogy and all the films based on these works. Paul Fussell, in his excellent discussion of war poetry, The Great War and Modern Memory, includes a chapter on homosexuality in the ranks.

But Winn doesn’t pretend to break fresh ground with In Memoriam; she’s open about her borrowing and gives credit to the earlier writers who inspired details, incidents, and even names in her novel. There is always some risk in attempting a new take on old material, but Winn’s research is matched by her ability to craft a compelling narrative.

One reason British schools may deserve credit for the empire’s military success is that, in Winn’s portrait, the institutions themselves are battlegrounds built on relentless sexual cruelty and constant bullying. When we meet Henry Gaunt and Sydney Ellwood, they are close friends, deeply attracted to each other, and both searching for clues to the other’s feelings. Of course, they must hide any actual emotion, but not because sexual contact between men is forbidden — Preshute, the fictional boarding school here, is rife with it. Indeed, Gaunt is regularly raped by an older classmate, while Ellwood uses his wit and social position to distract the boys he sleeps with from noticing that he doesn’t wish they were girls.

This hypermasculine homoeroticism is complicated by the war and the fact that almost every student at Preshute is eager to fight for king and country. They are ostensibly not old enough to do so, but with girls in town handing white feathers — a symbol of cowardice — to any man deemed eligible for military service who hasn’t yet enlisted, boys as young as 15 find ways to sign up. Gaunt, the sole pacifist among them, is pressured by his German-immigrant family to enlist so they’ll appear suitably patriotic.

Winn’s depiction of the war is gripping; her portrait of the terror and gore of the trenches is vivid and unrelenting. She takes on issues of class and cowardice, patriotism, and PTSD without losing sight of character. In fact, we follow several young men and get a thoroughly believable view of the corrosive impact the horror has on their ideas of manhood, nationalism, and bravery. Parents who send their sons off with fervent pride struggle later with guilt and grief.

In some sections, Winn’s apparent nod to earlier works grows excessive. The scenes with Gaunt in a POW camp, for instance, read like a novelization of the WWII film “The Great Escape,” in which witty Allied prisoners plot elaborate escapes while their German captors stumble haplessly about. Having said that, I confess that during one harrowing scene in which Winn depicts a tunneling escape attempt, I had to put the book down because I was as fearful and claustrophobic as Gaunt.

While the cinematic clarity of the action makes this book memorable, it’s the author’s ability to keep us focused on the central relationship that’s truly impressive. Even as we watch the fear and violence of the war overwhelm them, the question of whether Gaunt and Ellwood will admit their love for each other remains the heart of the novel. It is perhaps ahistorical that most of their comrades come to recognize and accept the pair’s relationship even as they themselves struggle to do the same.

And that is important to our experience of In Memoriam. For all her research, Winn has not written a realistic story so much as a romantic one. We want these two characters to find a way to love each other fully; the fact that the obstacles to doing so will continue to oppress men like Gaunt and Ellwood for another (at least) half-century doesn’t make us root for them any less. I began the book impressed by how completely Winn recreates history. I ended it impressed by how skillfully she gets around it.

John P. Loonam has a Ph.D. in American literature from the City University of New York and taught English in New York City public schools for over 35 years. He has published fiction in various journals and anthologies, and his short plays have been featured by the Mottola Theater Project several times. He is married and the father of two sons; the four have lived in Brooklyn long enough to be considered natives by anyone but his neighbors.

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