Grady's Reviews > The Absolutist

The Absolutist by John Boyne
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Sep 08, 12


Weaving the vulnerabilities of men with the atrocities of war

John Boyne is already a highly regarded writer (perhaps his most famous story is that unforgettable THE BOY IN THE STRIPPED PAJAMAS that described war and its permutations as well as any novel written) and it should come as no surprise that once again he has come up with a story so profoundly moving and so elegantly written that it becomes an instant landmark. Boyne joins the ranks of writers who deal with love stories between men in the time of war and his novel could not be more timely.

The setting for this novel is during the time of and the time after the Great War, with the accompanying fractures and sounds and scars that accompanied that era. In September of 1919 the 20 year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver some letters to Marian Bancroft, the sister of Will, Tristan's closest comrade in battle. Tristan fought alongside Marian's brother during the Great War but in 1917, but Will laid down his guns on the battlefield, declared himself a conscientious objector refusing any role at all in the campaign (and `absolutist') and was shot as a traitor, an act which has brought shame and dishonor on the Bancroft family. The letters Tristan carries are not the real reason for Tristan's visit. He holds a secret deep in his soul, one that he is desperate to unburden himself of to Marian, if he can only find the courage. As they stroll through the streets of a city still coming to terms with the end of the war, he recalls his friendship with Will, from the training ground at Aldershot to the trenches of Northern France, and speaks of how the intensity of their friendship brought him from brief moments of happiness and self-discovery to long periods of despair and pain.

The manner in which Boyne unfolds this story, moving effortlessly back and forth between the war experience and the post war time, is steeped in atmosphere and in language that fearlessly describes the times and the thoughts and the incidents that build toward the rather surprising ending. Tristan is the son of a butcher, a handsome lad never quite accepted as he matures. In the early part of the book (after the war when Tristan is delivering the letters to Marion) Tristan sees himself as wasted physically, his once desirable body now masked by scars and loss of sensuousness. But at the same time he is sensitive to men he meets in the pubs or on the street - the first suggestion that this is a man we will discover has been in a same sex relationship with his beloved Will. It takes great sensitivity on the part of an author to gain the reader's attention and emotional involvement before the facts of the story - at times achingly real and strange - are evident. It is here and in many other areas, where Boyne excels. Writing of this sensitivity and simply verbal beauty is rare. Boyne is rapidly becoming one of the great writers of the century.

Grady Harp
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