In Memoriam: A novel

In Memoriam: A novel

by Alice Winn
In Memoriam: A novel

In Memoriam: A novel

by Alice Winn

Hardcover

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Overview

Notes From Your Bookseller

An unforgettable story of love, loss and war. The writing is so evocative and assured, it's hard to believe this is the author's first book.

GMA BUZZ PICK • INTERNATIONAL BEST SELLER AND AWARD WINNER • A haunting, virtuosic debut novel about two young men who fall in love during World War I • “Will live in your mind long after you’ve closed the final pages.” —Maggie O’Farrell, best-selling author of Hamnet and The Marriage Portrait

A Best Book of the Year: The New Yorker, The Washington Post, NPR

“In Memoriam is the story of a great tragedy, but it is also a moving portrait of young love.”—The New York Times


It’s 1914, and World War I is ceaselessly churning through thousands of young men on both sides of the fight. The violence of the front feels far away to Henry Gaunt, Sidney Ellwood and the rest of their classmates, safely ensconced in their idyllic boarding school in the English countryside. News of the heroic deaths of their friends only makes the war more exciting.

Gaunt, half German, is busy fighting his own private battle—an all-consuming infatuation with his best friend, the glamorous, charming Ellwood—without a clue that Ellwood is pining for him in return. When Gaunt's family asks him to enlist to forestall the anti-German sentiment they face, Gaunt does so immediately, relieved to escape his overwhelming feelings for Ellwood. To Gaunt's horror, Ellwood rushes to join him at the front, and the rest of their classmates soon follow. Now death surrounds them in all its grim reality, often inches away, and no one knows who will be next.

An epic tale of both the devastating tragedies of war and the forbidden romance that blooms in its grip, In Memoriam is a breathtaking debut.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593534564
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/07/2023
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 22,585
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

ALICE WINN grew up in Paris and was educated in the UK. She has a degree in English literature from Oxford University. She lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

I

ONE

Ellwood was a prefect, so his room that year was a splendid one, with a window that opened onto a strange outcrop of roof. He was always scrambling around places he shouldn’t. It was Gaunt, however, who truly loved the roof perch. He liked watching boys dipping in and out of Fletcher Hall to pilfer biscuits, prefects swanning across the grass in Court, the organ master coming out of Chapel. It soothed him to see the school functioning without him, and to know that he was above it.

Ellwood also liked to sit on the roof. He fashioned his hands into guns and shot at the passers-by.

“Bloody Fritz! Got him in the eye! Take that home to the Kaiser!”

Gaunt, who had grown up summering in Munich, did not tend to join in these soldier games.

Balancing The Preshutian on his knee as he turned the page, Gaunt finished reading the last “In Memoriam.” He had known seven of the nine boys killed. The longest “In Memoriam” was for Clarence Roseveare, the older brother of one of Ellwood’s friends. As to Gaunt’s own friend—and enemy—Cuthbert-Smith, a measly paragraph had sufficed to sum him up. Both boys, The Preshutian assured him, had died gallant deaths. Just like every other Preshute student who had been killed so far in the War.

“Pow!” muttered Ellwood beside him. “Auf Wiedersehen!”

Gaunt took a long drag of his cigarette and folded up the paper.

“They’ve got rather more to say about Roseveare than about Cuthbert-Smith, haven’t they?”

Ellwood’s guns turned back to hands. Nimble, long-fingered, ink-stained.

“Yes,” he said, patting his hair absentmindedly. It was dark and unruly. He kept it slicked back with wax, but lived in fear of a stray curl coming unfixed and drawing the wrong kind of attention to himself. “Yes, I thought that was a shame.”

“Shot in the stomach!” Gaunt’s hand went automatically to his own. He imagined it opened up by a streaking piece of metal. Messy.

“Roseveare’s cut up about his brother,” said Ellwood. “They were awfully close, the three Roseveare boys.”

“He seemed all right in the dining hall.”

“He’s not one to make a fuss,” said Ellwood, frowning. He took Gaunt’s cigarette, scrupulously avoiding touching Gaunt’s hand as he did so. Despite Ellwood’s tactile relationship with his other friends, he rarely laid a finger on Gaunt unless they were play-fighting. Gaunt would have died rather than let Ellwood know how it bothered him.

Ellwood took a drag and handed the cigarette back to Gaunt.

“I wonder what my ‘In Memoriam’ would say,” he mused.

“ ‘Vain boy dies in freak umbrella mishap. Investigations pending.’ ”

“No,” said Ellwood. “No, I think something more like ‘English literature today has lost its brightest star . . . !’ ” He grinned at Gaunt, but Gaunt did not smile back. He still had his hand on his stomach, as if his guts would spill out like Cuthbert-Smith’s if he moved it. He saw Ellwood take this in.

“I’d write yours, you know,” said Ellwood, quietly.

“All in verse, I suppose.”

“Of course. As Tennyson did, for Arthur Hallam.”

Ellwood frequently compared himself to Tennyson and Gaunt to Tennyson’s closest friend. Mostly, Gaunt found it charming, except when he remembered that Arthur Hallam had died at the age of twenty-two and Tennyson had spent the next seventeen years writing grief poetry. Then Gaunt found it all a bit morbid, as if Ellwood wanted him to die, so that he would have something to write about.

Gaunt had kneed Cuthbert-Smith in the stomach, once. How different did a bullet feel from a blow?

“Your sister thought Cuthbert-Smith was rather good-looking,” said Ellwood. “She told me at Lady Asquith’s, last summer.”

“Did she?” asked Gaunt, unenthusiastically. “Awfully nice of her to confide in you like that.”

“Maud’s A1,” said Ellwood, standing abruptly. “Capital sort of girl.” A bit of slate crumbled under his feet and fell to the ground, three stories below.

“Christ, Elly, don’t do that!” said Gaunt, clutching the window ledge. Ellwood grinned and clambered back into the bedroom.

“Come on in, it’s wet out there,” he said.

Gaunt hurriedly took another breath of smoke and dropped his cigarette down a drainpipe. Ellwood was splayed out on the sofa, but when Gaunt sat on his legs, he curled them hastily out of the way.

“You loathed Cuthbert-Smith,” said Ellwood.

“Yes. Well. I shall miss loathing him.”

Ellwood laughed.

“You’ll find someone new to hate. You always do.”

“Undoubtedly,” said Gaunt. But that wasn’t the point. He had written nasty poems about Cuthbert-Smith, and Cuthbert-Smith (Gaunt was almost certain it was him) had scrawled, “Henry Gaunt is a German SPY” on the wall of the library cloakroom. Gaunt had punched him for that, but he would never have shot him in the stomach.

“I think I believe he’ll be back next term, smug and full of tall tales from the front,” said Ellwood, slowly.

“Maybe none of them will come back.”

“That sort of defeatist attitude will lose us the War.” Ellwood cocked his head. “Henry. Old Cuthbert-Smith was an idiot. He probably walked straight into a bullet for a lark. That’s not what it will be like when we go.”

“I’m not signing up.”

Ellwood wrapped his arms around his knees, staring at Gaunt.

“Rot,” he said.

“I’m not against all war,” said Gaunt. “I’m just against this war. ‘German militarism’—as if we didn’t hold our empire through military might! Why should I get shot at because some Austrian archduke was killed by an angry Serb?”

“But Belgium—”

“Yes, yes, Belgian atrocities,” said Gaunt. They had discussed all this before. They had even debated it, and Ellwood had beaten him, 596 votes to 4. Ellwood would have won any debate: the school loved him.

“But you have to enlist,” said Ellwood. “If the War is even still on when we finish school.”

“Why? Because you will?”

Ellwood clenched his jaw and looked away.

“You will fight, Gaunt,” he said.

“Oh, yes?”

“You always fight. Everyone.” Ellwood rubbed a small flat spot on his nose with one finger. He often did that. Gaunt wondered if Ellwood resented that he had punched it there. They had only fought once. It hadn’t been Gaunt who started it.

“I don’t fight you,” he said.

“ϒνῶθι σεαυτόν,” said Ellwood.

“I do know myself!” said Gaunt, lunging at Ellwood to smother him with a pillow, and for a moment neither of them could talk, because Ellwood was squirming and shrieking with laughter while Gaunt tried to wrestle him off the sofa. Gaunt was strong, but Ellwood was quicker, and he slipped through Gaunt’s arms and fell to the floor, helpless with laughter. Gaunt hung his head over the side, and they pressed their foreheads together.

“Fighting like this, you mean?” said Gaunt, when they had got their breath back. “Wrestle the Germans to death?”

Ellwood stopped laughing, but he didn’t move his forehead. They were still for a moment, hard skull against hard skull, until Ellwood pulled away and leant his face into Gaunt’s arm.

All of Gaunt’s muscles tensed at the movement. Ellwood’s breath was hot. It reminded Gaunt of his dog back home, Trooper. Perhaps that was why he ruffled Ellwood’s hair, his fingers searching for strands the wax had missed. He hadn’t stroked Ellwood’s hair in years, not since they were thirteen-year-olds in their first year at Preshute and he would find Ellwood huddled in a heap of tears under his desk.

But they were in Upper Sixth now, their final year, and almost never touched each other.

Ellwood was very still.

“You’re like my dog,” said Gaunt, because the silence was heavy with something.

Ellwood tugged away.

“Thanks.”

“It’s a good thing. I’m very fond of dogs.”

“Right. Anything you’d like me to fetch? I’m starting to get the hang of newspapers, although my teeth still leave marks.”

“Don’t be daft.”

Ellwood laughed a little unhappily.

“I’m sad about Roseveare and Cuthbert-Smith too, you know,” he said.

“Oh, yes,” said Gaunt. “And Straker. Remember how you two used to tie the younger boys to chairs and beat them all night?”

It had been years since Ellwood bullied anyone, but Gaunt knew he was still ashamed of the vein of ungovernable violence that burnt through him. Just last term, Gaunt had seen him cry tears of rage when he lost a cricket match. Gaunt hadn’t cried since he was nine.

“Straker and I were much less rotten than the boys in the year above were to us,” said Ellwood, his face red. “Charlie Pritchard shot us with rifle blanks.”

Gaunt smirked, conscious that he was taunting Ellwood because he felt he had embarrassed himself by touching his hair. It was the sort of thing Ellwood did to other boys all the time, he reasoned with himself. Yes, a voice answered. But never to him.

“I wasn’t close with Straker, anyway,” said Ellwood. “He was a brute.”

“All your friends are brutes, Ellwood.”

“I’m tired of all this.” Ellwood stood. “Let’s go for a walk.”

They were forbidden to leave their rooms during prep, so they had to slip quietly out of Cemetery House. They crept down the back stairs, past the study where their housemaster, Mr. Hammick, was berating a Shell boy for sneaking. (Preshute was a younger public school, and eagerly used the terminology of older, more prestigious institutions: Shell for first year, Remove for second, Hundreds for third, followed by Lower and Upper Sixth.)

“It is a low and dishonourable thing, Gosset. Do you wish to be low and dishonourable?”

“No, sir,” whimpered the unfortunate Gosset.

“Poor chap,” said Ellwood when they had shut the back door behind them. They walked down the gravel path into the graveyard that gave Cemetery House its name. “The Shell have been perfectly beastly to him, just because he told them all on his first day that he was a duke.”

“Is he?” asked Gaunt, skimming the tops of tombstones with his fingertips as he walked.

“Yes, he is, but that’s the sort of thing one ought to let people discover. It’s rather like me introducing myself by saying, ‘Hello, I’m Sidney Ellwood, I’m devastatingly attractive.’ It’s not for me to say.”

“If you’re waiting for me to confirm your vanity—”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Ellwood with a cheery little skip. “I haven’t had a compliment from you in about three months. I know, because I always write them down and put them in a drawer.”

“Peacock.”

“Well, the point is, Gosset has been thoroughly sat on by the rest of his form, and I feel awfully sorry for him.”

They were coming to the crumbling Old Priory at the bottom of the graveyard. It was getting colder and wetter as night fell. The sky darkened to navy blue, and in the wind their tailcoats billowed. Gaunt hugged his arms around himself. There was something expectant about winter evenings at Preshute. It was the contrast, perhaps, between the hulking hills behind the school, the black forest, the windswept meadows, all so silent—and the crackling loudness of the boys when you returned to House. Walking through the empty fields, they might have been the only people left alive. Ellwood lived in a grand country estate in East Sussex, but Gaunt had grown up in London. Silence was distinctly magical.

“Listen,” said Ellwood, closing his eyes and tilting up his face. “Can’t you just imagine the Romans thrashing the Celts if you’re quiet?”

They stopped.

Gaunt couldn’t imagine anything through the silence.

“Do you believe in magic?” he asked. Ellwood paused for a while, so long that if he had been anyone else, Gaunt might have repeated the question.

“I believe in beauty,” said Ellwood, finally.

“Yes,” said Gaunt, fervently. “Me too.” He wondered what it was like to be someone like Ellwood, who contributed to the beauty of a place, rather than blighting it.

“It’s a form of magic, all this,” said Ellwood, walking on. “Cricket and hunting and ices on the lawn on summer afternoons. England is magic.”

Gaunt had a feeling he knew what Ellwood was going to say next.

“That’s why we’ve got to fight for it.”

Ellwood’s England was magical, thought Gaunt, picking his way around nettles. But it wasn’t England. Gaunt had been to the East End once, when his mother took him to give soup and bread to Irish weavers. There had been no cricket or hunting or ices, there. But Ellwood had never been interested in ugliness, whereas Gaunt—because of Maud, perhaps, because she read Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell and wrote mad things about the colonies in her letters—feared that ugliness was too important to ignore.

“Do you remember the Peloponnesian War?” said Gaunt.

Ellwood let out a breathy laugh. “Honestly, Gaunt, I don’t know why I bother with you. We skipped prep so that we wouldn’t have to think about Thucydides.”

“Athens was the greatest power in Europe, perhaps even the world. They had democracy, art, splendid architecture. But Sparta was almost as powerful. Not quite, but close enough. And Sparta was militaristic.”

“Is this a parable, Gaunt? Are you Christ?”

“And so the Athenians fought the Spartans.”

“And they lost,” said Ellwood, kicking at a rotting log.

“Yes.”

Ellwood didn’t answer for a long time.

“We won’t lose,” he said, finally. “We’re the greatest empire that’s ever been.”

They were in Hundreds the first time they got drunk together. Gaunt was sixteen and Ellwood fifteen. Pritchard had somehow—“at great personal cost,” he told them darkly—convinced his older brother to give him five bottles of cheap whisky. They locked themselves in the bathroom at the top of Cemetery House: Pritchard, West, Roseveare, Ellwood, and Gaunt. Ellwood, Gaunt later discovered, had insisted on buying his bottle off Pritchard. Ellwood had a morbid fear of being perceived as miserly.

West spat his first mouthful of whisky into the sink. He was a big-eared, clumsy, disastrous sort of person: stupid at lessons, average at games, a cheerful failure.

“Christ alive! That’s abominable stuff,” he said. His tie was crooked. It always was, no matter how many times he was punished for sloppiness.

“Keep drinking,” advised Roseveare, from his lazy position on the floor. Gaunt glanced at him and noticed with some irritation that, even dishevelled, he was immaculate. He was the youngest of three perfect Roseveare boys, each more exemplary than the last, and he was good-looking in a careless, gilded way that Gaunt resented.

“I quite like it,” said Ellwood, turning his bottle to look at the label. “Perhaps I shall develop a habit. I think Byron had a habit.”

“So do monks,” said Gaunt.

“That was nearly funny, Gaunt,” said Roseveare encouragingly. “You’ll get there.”

Gaunt took a swig of whisky. He didn’t much like the taste, but it made him feel light, as if people weren’t looking at him. Or, perhaps, it made him feel as if he shouldn’t mind it if they did. He climbed into the bathtub and sank out of sight, clutching the bottle to his chest.

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