“We live here, beneath the ground like cadavers, and carve streets into the terrain, then we name them and erect signposts to give us the illusion that we remain part of a common humanity.”
John Boyne has an easy-to-read style, even when writing about something as brutish as the battlefields of World War I. ‘The Absolutist’ follows Tristan Sadler as he returns his fallen comrade’s letters to his sister. The book alternates between Tristan preparing to meet Marian, and his recollections of Marian’s brother Will, from their first meeting at Aldershot Military Barracks to the fields of France.
The novel addresses friendship, love and the sometimes unclear boundaries between the two, as well as posing questions on the definitions of cowardice and courage in a time of war. The denouement is hinted at early on, and doesn’t really come as a surprise, but I don’t think the author intends it to either. Perhaps part of the point is the reader having that sense of inevitability about how things will turn out, that Tristan has yet to discover.
My one argument with this book is the ending, or rather where the book ends (you may want to stop reading here!).
I found the ‘flash-forward’ to Tristan as an older man unconvincing. Yes, we’re dealing with a man of a different age, but I didn’t feel that I was with the same person, and the whole episode seemed rather superfluous to me. I would have argued for the book to end at page 292. I suppose it’s clever in its own way, but it didn’t appeal to me…. Or to my dad, which I found out during a recent slightly wine-fuelled discussion!
Overall though, a different and touching angle on the ‘typical’ WWI novel, if there is such a thing.Colm Toibin is quoted on the book cover: ‘A wonderful, sad, tender book’, which sums it up better than I can myself.