Wednesday 28 June 2017

Review: Culture The Absolutist by John Boyne

Doubleday, €22.45

Dubliner John Boyne is best known these days as the author of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. He wrote the children's novel in 2006 and it went on to become an international bestseller as well as a Hollywood film. Boyne himself is now a household name, whose novels are published in 40 languages.

Boyne's work immediately after The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas seemed to be reacting to the enormous success of his little book, as he veered from boys' own-style adventures (The Mutiny On The Bounty) to historical dramas (The House Of Special Purpose). He returned to children's fiction last year with Noah Barleywater Runs Away.

Although reasonably successful, none of these repeated the huge international sales of Striped Pyjamas and with his latest book for adults, The Absolutist, Boyne has returned to the theme that brought him so much recognition: friendship forged in war.

This is Boyne's ninth novel and he seems finally to have gotten the balance right between a small simple story and the length of the book.

Shorter, tighter and more accessible than his previous books for adults, Boyne seems concerned here with simply telling a good story. It feels like a deliberate move into a more commercial market. The Absolutist is, however, a story of a complex and difficult love affair between two soldiers during the Great War.

Tristan Sadler is a 21-year-old veteran of the Great War. In 1919 he is travelling to meet Marian Bancroft, the sister of his late comrade and friend, Will Bancroft. The trip is ostensibly to return some letters but Tristan has other secrets to reveal.

The book is concerned with all kinds of shame, from the shame the Bancroft family endures in their locale when they discover Will has been court martialled for cowardice to the shame Tristan feels when he is dispatched to the army having been expelled from school for kissing a boy.

When he meets Will in army training, they form a strong bond and gradually become closer. Shame and guilt are huge shadows in this book, and Boyne skillfully draws a thread through from sexual to moral to social shame.

The book cleverly deals with all sorts of alienation, so we see those who don't fit in because of their sexuality but also those who are outsiders because of their liberal thinking or their independence, perfectly reflecting the rapidly changing era.

Boyne tells a good story. From start to finish, he's always moving things along, revealing to you the exact information you want to know at the right time.

In the war, feather men were the men who were considered too cowardly to fight and so were dispatched over the trenches to collect the bodies of their wounded or dead comrades, often being killed themselves.

The book explores all the classic themes of war -- how do you stay good in the face of such horror, how do you maintain your sense of self when all around is catastrophe?

It also questions the justifications for war when Will asks Tristan, "Don't you have any principles, Tristan? Principles for which you would lay down your life?'

Tristan replies: "People perhaps. But not principles. What good are they?"

War also becomes a metaphor for love, and the combat we wreak on ourselves and others. And how love, just as easily as war, can make monsters of us.

Edel Coffey

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