The Absolutist by John Boyne

The difficult thing about The Absolutist is that none of the characters are particularly charming or lovely. Neither of them demanded me to cheer for them, but that is what makes it an extraordinarily raw and human story. It was people ruining each other’s lives in the most brutal, everyday way that has long since been cut out of books for its ultra-realism.

Briefly, The Absolutist is a story set mostly in the trenches of the First World War, alternatively narrated in present tense in the trenches and told in retrospective in Norwich in 1919. Tristan Sadler has letters to deliver to the Marian, sister of his friend Will Bancroft. Will was shot as a traitor and a coward and Tristan wishes to deliver Will’s letters and his own secret to Marian.

While a seemingly simple and easy read on the surface, The Absolutist deals with complex subject matter through conversation, flashbacks and the fractured mirror of memory. Marian represents the misunderstood face of feminism, having been part of the Suffragette movement and still frustrated by how far the movement had to go then (and still has to go now). Tristan is gay in an age where it is treated as a court martial offence and is spoken of as so Other that no one will even refer to it by name. Will struggles with what it means to be a ‘feather man’, a term used for men who could not or would not enlist. (Many men who were not considered physically fit for the army were often humiliated in public by being handed feathers despite their desire to serve.)

It is one of those novels where the ending is clear on the back of the book jacket: Will will be executed for being a coward. But how we get to that point, and what Tristan goes through in the trenches and Marian suffers under the weight of her community’s disregard for her brother, is part of a much larger history. There are themes of love and friendship, exile and hatred set amongst the high-detail setting of trenches in the First World War. Tristan being chewed on by rats, the filth on his face, watching someone’s head explode and being covered in their brains and splattered eyeball; John Boyne is a master of detail and setting.

My relationship with The Absolutist is strange but I think a lasting one. As I mentioned earlier, none of the characters were particularly lovely. Tristan with his madness and Marian with her frustration and Will’s indifference. But I wanted to see where they would go, and why Tristan had felt it necessary to make the trip to Norwich when he could have just sent the letters by post (and spared himself the awful trip to the Bancroft home). The Absolutist is one of those stories so masterfully told that I still cared very much what happened to these ordinary people who could be so careless with each other. If it were in the cinemas, it would be billed as a film rather than a movie, because the settings are grand but the people are so much more human than the awful archetypes that are usually paraded as people in books and movies. It sounds like a strange statement to make but I felt I had gotten to know these characters within a few short pages and might be able to buy Christmas presents for them if asked. Perhaps thorough characterisation is becoming a dying art.

The Absolutist is not for everyone, and definitely not for fans of happy endings. There’s no glamour, no glory and a great deal of hard questions. I suppose one could classify it as literary, perhaps. Definitely for those who loved Atonement by Ian McEwan (which is definitely one of the 20 best books I’ve ever read). But that’s not to say that it shouldn’t be read by anyone. I think it would make a fine setwork for schools, after all. And I feel richer for having read it, so that makes it more than worthwhile.

Just don’t read it before bed.

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