In Memoriam by Alice Winn review – an elegy for young love

<span>Photograph: PA</span>
Photograph: PA

In March 1915, public schoolboy Sidney Ellwood sends a letter to his close friend Henry Gaunt on the western front: “I am torn between wanting the War to go on so I can join you (‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers!’), and wanting it to end so you can join the Ardents. Two such thrilling worlds! Aren’t we lucky?”

Needless to say, Ellwood’s perspective on luck soon changes. Alice Winn’s debut novel, named after Tennyson’s elegiac poem, begins as Ellwood and Gaunt, seniors at Preshute College, are between two worlds. On the one hand, the cloistered idyll of school, with its long summer afternoons and jolly Ardents society; on the other, the seemingly great adventure of the first world war, with its many chances to die magnificently for king and country.

They also inhabit another, more secretive world: that of two young men in love with one another. Ellwood is half-Jewish, dreamy, a poet; Gaunt is half-German, taciturn, a boxer. They are friends, but not “particular friends” the way others in their school are, those who retire to each other’s studies to “discuss the lower-school teams”. They both quietly, confusedly long to be together, but Ellwood can only speak in verse quotations, and Gaunt can hardly speak at all. And anyway, society forbids it. One day they fight each other, and, although underage, Gaunt enlists.

Ellwood soon follows. But everything has changed, and Gaunt now looks at him through dead eyes. Fittingly, the novel changes too. Gone is the languorous, yearning atmosphere of its early pages; here instead is a brisk, cold-hearted dealing out of death. Winn is necessarily ruthless. “West’s head was shot off before they had gone two feet.” The school friends we’ve come to know and like are dispatched one by one. The roll of honour from the school’s magazine is peppered throughout, and we look for familiar names.

Despite the effectiveness of much of this, and despite Ellwood’s reflection that the realities of war are now “brighter and clearer than all the literature he had ever read”, at times events can seem a little secondhand. The action is oddly weightless: “He jumped into the trench and grabbed the nearest German by the waist, flinging him up to Ellwood.” There is a danger, too, that Ellwood and Gaunt are undermined by the standard period scenery (“How topping!”) and can look like props themselves (“He looked even more like a painting than usual […] He was 1912”). Their portrayal comes rather too close to pastiche.

Still, there is much to like. The cast of characters is highly enjoyable: gallant Roseveare; swinish Burgoyne; charming Gideon Devi. In Memoriam is rarely better than when in Boy’s Own mode: when the young men are ragging and chaffing and sharing secrets and plotting escapes from their prisoner-of‑war camp. The rush of the plot, alternating between the perspectives of Ellwood and Gaunt, takes us through the shattering events of 1914-18 and affectingly shows us the marks it leaves on them. It is a pity that these events, and the literary conventions used to depict them, to an extent overpower the deeper resonances of Ellwood and Gaunt’s transgressive and individual relationship. That could have been the most interesting world of all.

In Memoriam by Alice Winn is published by Viking (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.