The Absolutist by John Boyne

The Absolutist by John Boyne

Summary from the publisher:
It is September 1919: twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver a package of letters to the sister of Will Bancroft, the man he fought alongside during the Great War.

But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan’s visit. He can no longer keep a secret and has finally found the courage to unburden himself of it. As Tristan recounts the horrific details of what to him became a senseless war, he also speaks of his friendship with Will–from their first meeting on the training grounds at Aldershot to their farewell in the trenches of northern France. The intensity of their bond brought Tristan happiness and self-discovery as well as confusion and unbearable pain.

I went into The Absolutist armed only with the knowledge that it was a WWI story that would likely explore a friendship between two soldiers that developed into something more. By the end, I was an emotional wreck. This is an incredibly visceral book that takes you deep into the trenches in a way that you’ve never experienced before, then poignantly captures the year immediately following the war, when everyone was still coming to terms with the enormity of loss. And all the while, the question: what truly defines a coward?

The stand-out here is John Boyne’s utterly transporting writing. He sets the scene so perfectly that you can easily visualize the small town in Norwich where the Bancrofts live, the spartan training grounds at Aldershot, and the filth of the trenches in France. The scenes in France were especially good, and a particularly memorable moment for me was one harrowing charge where a young recruit became paralyzed with fear right before going over the top, to the point where those behind him had to shove him bodily into no man’s land. It’s a completely unvarnished look at a devastating war, and it made complete sense for Tristan to constantly wondered how he was still alive. But then the soldiers interact with one another like the boys they are, and you can’t help but laugh at a welcome moment of lightness.

I also loved the way Boyne explored what it meant to be a conscientious objector during this war. I didn’t know that there were varying degrees of objectors, from those who refused to fight but still wanted to do something for the war effort, to those who refused to do anything at all, a.k.a. absolutists, and while I was familiar with the way these men were treated at home, I was unaware of how they were treated in the army, and while it was unsurprising, it was still horrifying.

Finally, Boyne unravels Tristan’s story at a perfect pace as he moves between Norwich in 1919 and the war years, so that by the time the darkest secrets are revealed, you’ve gotten to know and understand him, and even though his actions are horrible, you can see what drove him to make his choice and why it will torment him for the rest of his life.

The Absolutist is an incredible novel of war and loss that will resonate with you long after you’ve finished it. If you love history and WWI, this is definitely for you.

Thanks Jen and the folks at Other Press for my copy! I can’t wait for tomorrow’s discussion at Linus’s Blanket.

And, by the way, aforementioned Jen is the new mother of twins! Happy birthday, Margaret and Elizabeth!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Absolutist by John Boyne

  1. I love WWI novels and am always on the lookout for excellent new titles. From the review, this sounds like one!

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