by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
Alice Winn's gorgeous In Memoriam (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) is the story of two boys, Ellwood and Gaunt, who love each other deeply. Set during World War I, the novel begins at their English boarding school, where it's acceptable for some boys to be together, but only quietly and only if the relationship is a temporary one.
Their story is told both chronologically and through a series of flashbacks that reveals each character's history and also the history of his understanding of the other. Neither Ellwood nor Gaunt imagines—for different reasons—that the other could love him in the same way he loves his friend. Their friendship is open and affectionate and widely accepted, despite their very different personalities, but those true feelings lie hidden year after year.
Unrequited love was a difficult thing to live with, but Ellwood managed because Gaunt needed him.
Gaunt, who is half-German, is pressured to enlist early to save his family's reputation, despite his moral objections to the war itself. Ellwood has promised his widowed mother that he will not enlist until he has turned 18 and finished school, and so the two are separated by distance, by experiences, and by very different understandings of the world.
“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. . . .
But Ellwood had never been interested in ugliness, whereas Gaunt . . . feared that ugliness was too important to ignore.
The novel's plot goes through many twists and turns, but it's this tender relationship that remains at its center. Winn's writing is stunning, beautiful within the ugliness of the war that she portrays so vividly. I felt the desperate truth of Ellwood and Gaunt's love for each other on every page, even as their friendships with others, both at school and in the war, enrich that main story.
My list of top five books of the year so far published on Wednesday; if I'd read this book a little earlier, it would have made the list.
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