I don’t think I did survive it. I may not be buried in a French field but I linger there. My spirit does, anyway. I think I’m just breathing, that’s all. And there’s a difference between breathing and being alive. – from The Absolutist, page 137 –
Tristan Sadler has survived trench warfare and returned to England. In September 1919 he boards a train from London and travels to Norwich to meet with the sister of a man named Will Bancroft, a man who did not make it home from France. Tristan tells Marian he wants to return some letters to her, but his real purpose is to unload his simmering guilt and finally reveal what really happened to Will.
Narrated from Tristan’s point of view, The Absolutist moves from Norwich in 1919 back to 1916 when Tristan arrives at Aldershot for training as a young boy of seventeen. It is there he meets Will for the first time and is drawn to him. When the two finally ship out to France, their relationship is no longer simple but a complex mix of friendship, love and resentment.
John Boyne has written a tragic and heartbreaking story of two young men during wartime. The novel is set against the backdrop of the deeper issue of what it means to be a man during a time when courage and honor were ideals in society. As the title suggests, the novel also explores the idea of moral absolutism. Is right and wrong etched in black and white? Is war amoral? Or are there times when the ends justify the means? Boyne does not only examine the morality of war and the conscientious objector’s dilemma, but he also adds another element to the novel – that of sexual identity. From the beginning, Boyne eludes to this second, underlying theme when Tristan checks into his room in Norwich and is told he must wait for the room to be thoroughly cleaned. Why? Because a man who occupied the room the night before was discovered to be homosexual.
Tristan’s story is told in a non-linear fashion and is superbly plotted. So many literary fiction novels lack a riveting plot, but Boyne has done something fantastic in The Absolutist. He has created complex, flawed characters who are fully developed and he has crafted a suspenseful, engaging narrative that kept me turning the pages long past my bedtime.
The Absolutist is a tender, deeply moving story whose themes are as timely today as they would have been in the early part of the twentieth century. While reading this novel, I was struck by the parallels between what happened during WWI (conscientious objectors being vilified, gays being discriminated against) and today’s world. Sadly, not much seems to have changed.
John Boyne’s book is bound to be a classic someday. It has all the elements: fascinating characters, finely drawn plot, relevant themes and gorgeous writing. A powerful and poignant read for our times, The Absolutist is highly recommended.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book as part of BOOK CLUB (discussion post is here).