Saturday, September 8, 2012

Review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

Ask anyone and they can tell you all sorts of facts about World War II. But ask those same people about World War I and you'll get far fewer bits of information. For some reason World War I is not high in our collective consciousness here in the US. Maybe because it was overshadowed so quickly by the Second World War. Maybe because it didn't have anything so perfectly evil like the Holocaust towards which to point. Maybe because the generation that fought in it has been gone for so long now. For whatever reason, it seems to be one of those wars that don't enter into our thoughts despite the gruesomeness and appallingly high casualty count of its combination of modern weapons and trench warfare. Although set after the end of the war, once you've read this affecting novel by John Boyne, World War I and its cost will be forever etched in your consciousness in ways you'd never predict.

Tristan Sadler survived the war. He lied about his age in order to join up and he spent months training and then living the horrors of trench warfare. His first day at training, he met Will Bancroft and the two of them became closest friends. Will did not live. As the novel opens a number of years after the war, Tristan is traveling from his home to deliver a bundle of letters to Marian, Will's sister. But this task, which could easily have been delegated to the postal service, is just an excuse. In truth Tristan is taking the letters to Marian in order to expunge himself of guilt, to detail the truth of Will's final days, and perhaps to seek Marian's absolution.

Tristan's narration takes the reader into his wartime experiences and the agonizing friendship he maintained with Will from their earliest days in training up to the very end. He details his attraction to the outgoing and appealing Will and his jealousy when Will starts to listen to and internalize the reasoned arguments of another man in their unit about his concientious objector status. Tristan doesn't spare Marian, and by extension the reader, the knowledge of his own terrible falling out with his family and its causes which add depth to his growing attachment to Will. He quietly admits to his own worst and basest feelings. He describes the horrors of war graphically and unsentimentally. And he confronts both the moral ambiguities and absolutisms that abound in times of war and the ways in which men justify adherence to either.

With themes of courage and cowardice, honor, friendship, social norms and prejudices, and sexual identity, Boyne has crafted a skillfully written, thought provoking novel. The narrative is non-linear, with Tristan revealing snippets of his training experiences, the war, his several years post-war admissions to Marian, and his current day old age each at precisely the right moment to complicate and add depth to his tale. The tension builds steadily and perceptibly as more comes to light during the telling and while the climax is, by the time it is revealed, not surprising, it remains powerful, tolling the death of so many high minded-values we claim to hold dear. Powerful and affecting, The Absolutist is a novel not to be missed.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.


  1. What an excellent, well written review. I liked The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and I have a feeling I'd like this even more. I'm adding it to my wish list.

  2. Hi Kristen,

    This sounds like a thoroughly thought provoking and emotional story, a definite for my reading list.

    The First World War, receives much more coverage in the UK naturally, both in fiction and non-fiction books and of course in our recognition of the few remaining survivors of the conflict.

    There are many English authors who still write novels about the period voraciously, although I think that their number is sadly on the decline. There aren't many however, who actually deal with the period from the male perspective at the 'front', they tend mainly to focus on the female role in the war effort, here at home and on the role of women on the frontline, both at home and in the battlezone.

    This book looks like it offers a slightly different perspective on things, so will be very interesting.

    A nice review, thanks,


  3. I really do think a big reason WWI doesn't get as much coverage is your second reason - it's much harder to explain. That, combined with how violent and bloody it was, it hasn't ever been terribly popular. But now, oddly, it's getting more so (thank you Downton Abbey!) I have Birdsong on my own list as a WWI book I want to read. It's sad how it's been overshadowed and forgotten, but hopefully it's now getting its due, even if belated.


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