Sunday 21 January 2018

Review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

Doubleday, €22.45

Aine O'Connor

The First World War, the war that really should have ended all wars, has spawned some incredible literature in the near century since it ravaged a generation.

From a poem from the trenches such as Dulce et Decorum Est, still genuinely affecting (some) teenagers on the Junior Cert syllabus, right through to relatively recent novels such as Birdsong and A Long Long Way, that especially filthy conflict provided what seems like a conduit to a particularly male expression of emotion.

In The Absolutist, John Boyne follows in these well-worn footsteps, looking at yet another angle. During the First World War,, as with other wars, conscientious objectors refused to fight but would help the war effort in other ways, usually rewarded with swift death jobs such as stretcher-bearing, while the absolutists refused to do anything at all to enable the war.

In 1919, some three life-altering years after his time as a soldier began, 20-year-old Tristan Sadler journeys from London to Norwich, his heart still heavy with horror. During training, Tristan had become friends with Will Bancroft, and they were then sent to the same trenches in France but their friendship, surroundings and experiences changed each of them irreparably.

It was Will who became the absolutist and, for this, he was shot as a traitor. Tristan's journey to Norwich is to visit Will's sister Marian, bereaved and angry in a town that treats her loss as the loss of a coward, a feather man who shamed his family. She wants answers, and Tristan wants release from a secret that burdens him.

Boyne's work has taken him many places and here he returns to the theme of his greatest success, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and humanity in the face of war. It's something he's good at, and while he does describe and use the horror of the trenches, they serve more as backdrop and motivation. The true focus is on what exposure to death, killing, fear and suffering does to people, and, out of it, how the more ordinary emotions such as love and loneliness fare in the cracks of life left.

There are times when the book drags a little, sections that are too slowly paced for what they bring overall, and there are one or two odd omissions, like where does an entirely alone not yet 16-year-old boy go in London? But by and large, it's affecting and accessible; Tristan a likeable soul whose inner thoughts we do care about. The depiction of the attitudes of the time, morality and mores, class, convention, the massive loss of life and soul that the war was, yet the rush to join and the frustration of those left behind, and the story's context, make it particularly interesting.

I'm not sure that the Atonement-style addendum works, or that it adds anything in particular other than to cover the occasional unlikelinesses of language in the dialogue. But neither is it horribly jarring. The Absolutist is a really enjoyable, if rather sad, read, full of historical and human interest.

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