A photo of a book cover next to a photo of a woman from the chest up.
Alice Winn’s debut novel, “In Memoriam,” is “dazzling and wrenching, witty and wildly romantic,” according to Lev Grossman. (The photo on the right is by Jamie Ting)

Alice Winn wins the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for ‘In Memoriam’

Author will be featured at public event on campus on Nov. 19.

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Alice Winn has won the 2024 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, which honors an outstanding debut novel published during the preceding calendar year. Her winning book, “In Memoriam,” published by Alfred A. Knopf, is a devastating love story between two young men that moves from the sheltered idyll of their public school to the unspeakable horrors of the Western Front during World War I. 

Winn will receive the award during a public event at Virginia Commonwealth University on Nov. 19. The event will involve a reading, a moderated discussion and a Q&A. Details of the event and additional materials will be made available at firstnovelist.vcu.edu/event.

Winn was one of three finalists for the prize, now in its 23rd year. The others were Jinwoo Chong for “Flux” (Melville House) and Gerardo Sámano Córdova for “Monstrilio” (Zando).

According to the publisher’s official synopsis of “In Memoriam”:

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.

Among its honors, “In Memoriam” received the 2023 Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize and won the British Book Award for Debut Fiction. It was named a GMA Buzz Pick and a best book of the year by The New Yorker, NPR and The Washington Post. “In Memoriam” also was longlisted for the Center for Fiction Debut Novel prize.

The New York Times Book Review writes that in “In Memoriam,” Winn’s “exquisite pacing lives in her syntax as much as her plot, giving vim and vigor to every line.” Lev Grossman, author of “The Magicians,” calls the novel “magnificent — dazzling and wrenching, witty and wildly romantic, with echoes of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and ‘Atonement.’ I loved it.”

Winn grew up in Paris and was educated in the United Kingdom. She has a degree in English literature from Oxford University and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award celebrates the VCU MFA in Creative Writing program’s yearlong novel workshop, the first in the nation and one of the few still in existence. The winning author receives a $5,000 prize and participates in an event, traditionally in person, with two additional panelists, most often the agent and editor of the winning book. The event, open to all, focuses on the creation, publication and promotion of the author’s first novel.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is presented on behalf of the VCU MFA in Creative Writing program. Sponsors include the James Branch Cabell Library Associates, VCU Libraries, the Friends of VCU Libraries, the VCU Department of English and the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

Over 200 novels were submitted for this year’s prize. A universitywide panel of readers, in addition to members of the Richmond community, reduced the submissions to a Top 20 long list. MFA students narrowed the submissions to a Top 10 short list and then to three finalists. The final round of judging included the MFA students and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award Committee, with the previous year’s winner, Tess Gunty, acting as a tie-breaking vote if needed.

In addition to Winn, winners of the award have included Gunty for “The Rabbit Hutch,” Dawnie Walton for “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev,” Raven Leilani for “Luster,” John Englehardt for “Bloomland,” Ling Ma for “Severance,” Hernán Diaz for “In the Distance,” Jade Chang for “The Wangs vs. the World” and Angela Flournoy for “The Turner House.” A full list of previous winners can be found at firstnovelist.vcu.edu/winners.

The 2025 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is soon to announce a call for submissions for debut novels published in 2024, with a final submission deadline of Dec. 30, 2024. For more information, visit firstnovelist.vcu.edu.