The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Forbidden love and loss in Flanders Fields
by Alice Winn
400pp, Viking, (0844 871 1514), RRP£14.99, ebook £9.99
A schoolboy sits on the roof of his dorm building, pointing finger-guns at passersby and shouting “Bloody Fritz! Take that home to the Kaiser!” In a year’s time, he will be in Flanders, where corpses seep out of the waterlogged earth of the trenches, a private reports to him with scraps of brain clinging to his eyelashes, and the man he loves is gradually hollowed out by the horrors of war.
Alice Winn’s propulsive, visceral and heartrending début takes an all-too-familiar setting and brilliantly reframes it via a feverish gay love story. It’s not unlike those films which use a disaster to infuse their romance with unbearable urgency: a sort of queer Titanic.
Winn’s paramours meet at an elite boarding school: Sidney Ellwood (rich, passionate, effortlessly charming) and Henry Gaunt (awkward, stoic, bullied until he grows big enough to fight). Neither can quite admit his feelings for the other, but the charged intimacy of conflict hurls them together.
Winn frames the First World War as an almighty loss of innocence. The dreamy notion of an England and empire worth protecting, the golden ideals of riding into battle (Ellwood, an aspiring poet, cites The Charge of the Light Brigade), the belief in social hierarchy – all are shattered.
As are the bewildered boys snatched from the classroom to lead troops into clouds of poison gas. Most die pointlessly and horrifically, but they are memorialised in letters home, or in the school paper, as heroes who never suffered. Winn skilfully uses the school as a microcosm, making us feel the loss of each boy, each friend, each brother. And she is even-handed, switching to the German perspective at a key moment; Gaunt also has German relatives. There’s immersive detail and very effective dark humour: in a POW camp, the real misery is that the only book the Red Cross ever sends is Adam Bede.
But what keeps you turning the page is the tender central romance. Here Winn, too, grows poetic: “It was a magical thing, to love someone so much; it was a feeling so strange and slippery, like a sheath of fabric cut from the sky.”
Winn is overly sentimental at times, particularly in her credulity-stretching ending. But I can’t remember the last time I was this invested in a love story – all the while seeing our darkest history brought wrenchingly to life.