It’s 1919 and twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler is home from the war. He knows he is lucky to have survived when so many like him didn’t – people like his friend and fellow soldier, Will Bancroft. John Boyne’s The Absolutist follows the stories of Tristan and Will, two very different men with very different attitudes towards life, death, love and war.
As the novel opens, Tristan is taking a train from London to Norwich where he plans to visit Will’s sister, Marian, and return the letters she sent to Will during the war. This is not the only reason for his visit, however – he has been carrying a terrible secret and is hoping to unburden himself to Marian so that they can both move on and face the future.
Through a series of long flashbacks, we witness Tristan’s first meeting with Will during their training at Aldershot in 1916 and then watch their relationship develop as they are sent to France and endure the horrors of life in the trenches. This story unfolds alongside the ‘present day’ storyline set in 1919, with Tristan’s big secret kept concealed until near the end of the book, allowing suspense and tension to build throughout the novel. There’s already plenty of tension anyway, of course, because this is a novel which doesn’t shy away from describing the horror and the uncertainty of war and although we know from the start that Tristan survives and Will doesn’t, we don’t know exactly how Will’s life ended or what the fate of the other characters in the story might be.
I’ve read several of John Boyne’s other novels (and particularly loved This House is Haunted, Crippen and A History of Loneliness) so I started this one with high hopes. I thought it was a fascinating and moving read which I enjoyed almost – but not quite – as much as the three I’ve just mentioned. The period leading up to, during and just after the First World War is one that I always like to read about and this novel covers many different aspects of the war and its aftermath. What I found particularly interesting was the exploration of what it meant to be a ‘conscientious objector’ or an ‘absolutist’ during the war, how they were treated by the other soldiers and how they were viewed by the public. The difference between the two is that conscientious objectors, despite refusing to fight, would often agree to fill other roles, such as stretcher bearers, but absolutists were unwilling to have any involvement at all.
The one thing that spoils The Absolutist, in my opinion, is some of the language Boyne uses, especially in the dialogue, which doesn’t feel appropriate to the time period. Other reviews of this book have mentioned inaccuracies regarding the military terminology too, although I would never notice things like that myself. It’s a shame, considering the care and attention to detail Boyne has obviously put into his recreations of life in the trenches and his treatment of other important issues of the period such as women’s suffrage and attitudes towards homosexuality. Still, I had no major problems with this novel and found it a powerful and thought-provoking read. I still have plenty of John Boyne’s earlier books left to explore and am looking forward to his new one, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, coming in 2017.