The Absolutist by John Boyne

I love everything about this novel–the characters, the story, the time period, the writing style. It’s an epic World War I story that flows back and forth in time from 1919 to 1916, with a concluding chapter set in 1979. It’s a tragic love story unlike any other that I’ve read, yet it rings so absolutely true. And when I say ‘love story’ I do not mean ‘romance’ so don’t let that put you off.

Have you heard of absolutists before? I hadn’t. I know about conscientious objectors in WWI and other wars, men who refuse to fight but will serve in other capacities. An absolutist was a man who would do nothing to further or support the war effort.

The Absolutist is the story Tristan Sadler, a young man of only 17 when he enlists in the Army in 1916. He’d already been on his own for a year by then and in boot camp, at Aldershot Military Barracks, he’s befriended by a slightly older and much more confident young man named Will. 

Although they come from very different backgrounds Tristan and Will share an instant connection. In this scene from boot camp the platoon is standing in formation and Wolf, a conscientious objector, is being ridiculed by the platoon’s sergeant in a manner designed to break Wolf and rally the other privates’ fighting spirit:

I watch to see how he will react to the abuse and it is then that I lay eyes on Will Brancroft for the first time. He’s standing four men down from me and staring at Wolf with an expression of interest upon his face. He doesn’t look as if he entirely approves of what the man is doing but he isn’t joining in the chorus of disapproval. It’s as if he wants to get the mark of a fellow who calls himself a conscientious objector, as if he has heard of such mythical creatures and has always wondered what one might look like in the flesh. I find myself staring directly at him–at Bancroft, I mean, not Wolf–unable to shift my gaze, and he must sense my interest for he turns and catches my eye, looking at me for a moment, then cocking his head a little to the side and smiling. It’s strange: I feel as if I already know him, as if we know each other. Confused, I bite my life and look away, waiting for as long as I can force myself to before turning to look at him again, but he’s standing straight in line now, focused ahead, and it’s almost as if the moment of connection never happened (60-61). 

By the time the men are in the trenches, however, attitudes quickly change:

There’s no aggression towards the objectors any more, at least not towards those who have agreed to serve but not to fight. There would probably be a lot less sympathy towards those on the farms or in prison except, of course, we never see any of them. The fact is that everyone who is over here is at risk. It was different back at Aldershot. There we could play politics and stir ourselves up into fits of outraged patriotism. We could make Wolf’s life a bloody hell and never feel the worse for it (169).

The Absolutist is not only about the boys fighting the war, it’s also about families and friends back home and what they deal with (or refuse to deal with), both during and after the war, and even decades later. Boyne exposes cowards and heroes both in the trenches and at the home front. I am greatly taken in by issues of cowardice and courage, and The Absolutist seems to be showing how they are only truly understood when considered on a continuum. And with a huge dose of context.

In addition to cowardice and courage, there are many other issues masterfully explored or at least touched upon in this story: the nature of family love, family obligations, peer and family pressures, friendship, how people react to change, homophobia, internalized homophobia, women’s changing roles, and generational conflict to name a few.

It’s left me thinking about how easy it is to point out and condemn others for what’s currently a hot-button social or situational transgression, and then completely let one’s self off the hook by hiding behind other social conventions that appear, from the outside, anyway, like they’re the “right” thing to do, but in actuality are cloaks for one’s own cowardice. It’s tough being human, but even more so when you’re living a lie. 

I can’t wait to talk with people who’ve read this book! It’s found a permanent home on my shelves and it’s one that I’ll read again. Fans of Downton Abbey would probably enjoy this novel.

The Absolutist
John Boyne
Other Press, New York, 2011 (originally published in Great Britain by Doubleday)
Source: bought it at Prairie Lights in Iowa City
Read: because I’d heard good buzz about it and also for War Through the Generations WWI reading challenge.

Author: Chris Wolak

I'm cohost of the podcast Book Cougars: Two Middle-Aged Women on the Hunt for a Good Read and write about books and libraries on my blog, WildmooBooks.

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