Book Review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

“In that direction only pain lies.”

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.

The Absolutist is a masterful tale of passion, jealousy, heroism, and betrayal set in one of the most gruesome trenches of France during World War I. This novel will keep readers on the edge of their seats until its most extraordinary and unexpected conclusion, and will stay with them long after they’ve turned the last page.

The Absolutist is a story of love, war, bravery, shame, and learning to live with your past mistakes. It’s a powerful discussion on the fine line between courage and cowardice, and how blurred it can get during war. Thoughtful and complex, this tale is sure to leave a strong impression on its readers. 

When we meet Tristan Sadler for the first time, he’s on a train to Norwich where he wants to deliver some letters to one of his former comrades’ sister. He’s survived the Great War and he’s now working as an assistant to a publisher in London. Although he seems well-adapted, it’s obvious that he still struggles to leave the horrors of the war behind. The task of delivering the letters seem to trouble him immensely and it’s easy to assume at first that it’s all because he would have to recall every atrocity he had to face while serving in the British army. But as the story unfolds and alternates between Tristan’s stay at Norwich and his military training at Aldershot, we soon begin to understand that Tristan fears the inevitable confession he’d have to make about his complicated relationship with Will and the events that preceded Will’s demise more than anything else.

Tristan recounts the time spent at Aldershot and how his friendship with Will helped him complete the brutal training. An important figure in his stories is Arthur Wolf who declares himself a pacifist and suffers great consequences like being branded a ‘feather-man’, bullied by his fellow soldiers and outrightly tormented by Sergeant Clayton. Even though Wolf is unpopular among their troop, Will likes spending time with him and seems fascinated by his principles. As their departure to France approaches, most of the soldiers go from an ardent patriotism and a desperate need to prove themselves to a certain sense of dread and fear. For Will, things are even worse as the questions on the meaning of war and the anxiety he experiences are becoming almost suffocating. Amidst all that uncertainty, he tries to find some comfort in Tristan, but it’s short-lived as their principles and beliefs come to clash on several instances. They become even more alienated once they get to the front-lines as their reactions to violence are completely different. Focusing solely on surviving, Tristan becomes almost indifferent to the carnage. He considers it pragmatic not to think about the complexities of the war as it would only create more emotional turmoil and he’d still have to fight at the end of the day. Will, however, believes Tristan’s approach is despicable. In contrast, he thinks the British and the German soldiers are all pawns in a war that doesn’t concern them personally. Their opposing outlooks of the war, the tender moments they’ve shared in Aldershot and the undeniable attraction they feel for each other build the premise for a very complicated relationship that can only end up badly.

Boyne is incredibly adept at crafting morally ambiguous characters and putting them in settings that force them to confront their fears, weaknesses and motivations head-on. The way the author explores the deepest feelings of his characters is incredibly masterful and makes it very facile for the readers to get emotionally invested in the tragic story of Tristan and Will. As expected, there’s a lot of violence, cruelty, and meaningless deaths that eventually lead up to the question “Is it truly cowardly to refuse to fight or is it the rational thing to do?”. However, the thought-provoking conversations between Tristan and Marian, Will’s sister, about the everlasting marks the war left on a whole country, women’s rights and prejudice makes The Absolutist so much more than a war story. This relatively short book packs quite a punch as it tackles themes like sexual identity, betrayal, family estrangement, loss and grief.

Many thanks to Other Press for sending me a copy of the newest edition of the Absolutist that comes out on 13th April. Views are my own.

           You can check more about the Absolutist and get the book at the following links: Goodreads | Book Depository | Amazon | Other Press.

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Have you read any books written by John Boyne?

What are your favorite stories about war?

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