If all the good war novels are anti-war novels, then all the good anti-war novels are often good in similar ways. They contrast the heroic and patriotic elevation of armed conflict with the actual atrocities endured; they use the dehumanising effect of war to identify what remains of ourselves - and thus, what truly makes us human - once our souls have been stripped bare; and they measure the unbridgeable abyss left by PTSD between those “lucky” enough to return and the world they have returned to.
Alice Winn’s intimate WWI epic In Memoriam does all of that beautifully, but doesn’t stop there. She layers onto this gruesome but familiar canvas a moving love story, used as a lens to add perspective, distortion and focus to the bewildering spectacle of war.
Charmed poet Ellwood and awkward giant Gaunt are privileged public schoolboys in England, whose love for each other remains unspoken, except through quoting Tennyson and Thucydides. Once they enlist, it’s trench warfare, ironically, that reveals their feelings and defines their fate.
In a suspenseful, harrowing and furiously romantic tale, Winn uses war to reveal the complexity, the folly and the beauty of homosexual love at the hellish start of the last century.
She makes a compelling hypothesis: that it is language which is, in fact, the DNA of our soul. It’s language that allows us to come to terms with our sexuality, to bridge the gap with our enemies, to narrate our fractured selves back to sanity. If language is the first casualty of war - with its mute terror and indescribable acts - it is also the thread from which love, in its many forms, is effectively woven.
I will be recommending this novel widely, and for years to come.