Published By: Viking
Released On: 09/03/2023
In 1914, war feels far away to Henry Gaunt and Sidney Ellwood. They’re too young to enlist, and anyway, Gaunt is fighting his own private battle – an all-consuming infatuation with the dreamy, poetic Ellwood – not having a clue that his best friend is in love with him, always has been.
When Gaunt’s mother asks him to enlist in the British army to protect the family from anti-German attacks, he signs up immediately, relieved to escape his overwhelming feelings. But Ellwood and their classmates soon follow him into the horrors of trenches. Though Ellwood and Gaunt find fleeting moments of solace in one another, their friends are dying in front of them, and at any moment they could be next.
Me and ‘books of the year’ don’t have a very successful relationship, and so I was slightly wary that this wouldn’t live up to my expectations. But it had become near impossible to not read it, given the amount of attention people were giving it, so I took the chance. And I’m glad I did. Even from the very first page I could see how good it would be, how epic this love story would be.
And I just want to know who gave Alice Winn the right to create a book so gloriously perfect as this one?!
I like to write notes down for my review as I’m reading a book so I don’t forget how it made me feel. But I really struggled here, as it was just so spectacular to read that I couldn’t stop for a moment, and I struggled to get the words down to give it credit. It felt like something I needed to review as a whole, once I’d taken in the entire story.
The depiction of front-line warfare is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Yes, it still shows warfare in terms of the trenches and fighting and death etc, but there’s this…warmth. This warmth that grabs holds of you and won’t let go. You are just taken on this ride and it’s, it’s hard to find the proper word to describe it. It is devastatingly beautiful.
I’m always amazed when an author can write so proficiently about war. I know there’s lots of research that can be done, but this is written with such confidence and clarity that it’s like the story is part of her. You get a lot of literature about World War 2 – which is a good thing – but not much about World War 1, but Alice has shown it’s vital that we don’t forget the horrors of ‘the great war’.
It’s very human. I don’t mean that in terms of the soldiers themselves necessarily, but the boys, as most of them were. It’s easy to forget that these boys are just 17, 18, 19 year olds. Innocent boys, maybe away from home for the first time, confused, scared, and lonely, facing an enemy way bigger than themselves, being asked to do the unthinkable.
For me, this is a love story set during the war, rather than a war story that involves love. Love is the prominent emotion here. the love for your friends, for your family, for your lovers, and for your country.
There are explicit moments, but they don’t feel out of place. They’re written with such tenderness and understanding, but also so much fear at this illicit relationship, during a time where this kind of love carried a live-threatening punishment. And it angers me. This was a time where people were allowed to shoot each other, stab each other, bomb each other. But loving another man, that deserves imprisonment and potentially physical harm. How is that fair?
So, yes, there are scenes of a sexual nature, and so in that sense it is explicit. But it wasn’t the actual nature of the act that felt explicit to me. It’s the raw honesty and love. It’s like an emotional explicitness.
Given the premise, I expected it to be emotional and moving. What I didn’t expect was to be struggling to read it through sobs. It’s simply beautiful. Terrible and terrifying and sad, but just beautiful. And it’s not really something I can fully explain. It’s something one can only feel for themselves. I bizarrely found it quite humerous. I didn’t expect that. But there is a certain amount of humour to get through the hardships. It’s a dark humour that tries to mask their fear. But you’ll find yourself laughing and crying at the same scene.
I have seen the very rare complaint about the lack of female characters, but I wasn’t expecting any. We’re talking about boys from a boys school who go to fight in the trenches in 1914-1918. Women weren’t allowed to fight in those days. and therefore, Alice hasn’t shoe-horned unnecessary female characters in just to hit a quota. Instead she’s given us many male characters – boys and men, English and German – who are all very distinctive, very human, and just fabulous.
It’s hard to believe that this is a debut book. These are the words of an experienced writer who has spent their whole life polishing their craft. If this is what she can do in her debut, we’re all in for a treat with what she writes next.
I just wanted to read it from start to finish without stopping, and yet its so intense that I had to pause just to absorb it all, and I feel it deserves to have each and every word seen and read and appreciated.
A quote on the back of the book by author Claire Fuller says, “it was like looking at a black and white photograph which has been colourised, and suddenly you understand that these shadowy people from the past also dreamed and cried and breathed just as we do now”, and I think that’s the perfect description of the book. She’s created such a visual piece of writing that you can see it and you can feel it, it’s so clear you may as well be in the trenches yourself.
I usually gift family and friends books for their birthday/Christmas and I can say for definite that I’ll be ordering many more copies of this to give to anyone I know. I used to keep all my books, but over the past few years I’ve started given read ones away to friends, family and charity – mainly to make room for the hundreds more I keep ordering. But I can tell you now, this one is going nowhere.
In the words of Mary Poppins, it is “practically perfect in every way”. It will take a lot of beating for my “best book of the year” accolade. I just can’t see any other book coming close.