The Absolutist by John Boyne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Absolutist is set in England and France. Half the plot occurs during World War I with the rest occurring after the war when a vet, Tristan Sadler, travels to Norwich from London to deliver a set of letters to the sister of Will Bancroft, a soldier who fought in France, alongside Tristan. Will died during the war, but not in battle. He was executed for an act of cowardice. The book has multiple themes running through it including the horrors of war, the issues homosexuals dealt with in an era more repressive than our current time, and a definition of bravery.
Tristan lies about his age so he can enlist at seventeen. The reason he feels the need to escape from his home life is revealed as the novel progresses. He finds himself in an outfit run be a sergeant and corporals who use sadistic methods to turn the boys into warriors. This is expected in any boot camp situation, but the way one soldier, Wolf, is dealt with appears to go way over the line. This incident affects Will more than any of the others and also affects Tristan, because he was jealous of Will's relationship with Wolf. The soldiers go on to France to fight the war along with the same men who trained them. Now they are living in trenches, risking their lives daily, and watching as young men they know well die.
The issue of homosexuality is introduced with a long section about a room in a boarding house. The prejudices of the time were also shown later as Tristan's problems became known, so this section could have been left out without hurting the book. It felt as if Boyne was trying to establish the theme for himself rather than the reader. But other than that early portion, the issue of Trisan's sexuality was handled brilliantly. The bigotry was made clear. The lines between friendship and love and between comfort and sexual attraction were blurred. The shame was there, sometimes subtle and sometimes not. And the novel's ending was powerful because of the careful development of the characters.
I believe the book was named The Absolutist because the definition of bravery is its main theme. There are many examples of both bravery and cowardice throughout the novel and different readers will come to different conclusions about them. Certainly fighting for one's country is one example of courage, but although this novel has the trenches of wartime France as one of its main settings, the most interesting examples of courage or lack of courage are in the subtle issues relating to principle and acceptance.
Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions
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