‘The Absolutist’ by John Boyne

The Absolutist

★★★★★

After having read Boyne’s children’s novel Stay Where You Are And Then Leave set during WW1, I felt like reading his WW1 novel for adults. You really feel the difference; this book deals with some seriously depressing themes. Specifically tells the story of those men who were not killed by enemy fire or illness, but killed by their own side for refusing to fight.

Our narrator is Tristan, a WW1 veteran and Londoner who works in a publishing house and hopes to one day become a novelist. He is only twenty years old, but as a narrator he feels so much older: tired, worn down by disappointment and at times utterly despondent about what life has to offer. He has decided to travel to Norwich to see Marian, a woman he has never met before. She was the sister of his friend and lover Will, who was an absolutist (not just a conscientious objector, but someone who refused to have anything to do with the war effort at all) and was shot for it. Tristan has kept Marian’s letters to Will and is ostensibly in Norwich to give her these letters but really there are some secrets of which he needs to unburden himself of. During this one afternoon Tristan tells Marion about his and Will’s training at Aldershot, their first time on the Western Front and about Will’s death. Most of it Marion already knows, but there are some things Tristan has kept close to his heart, a really awful heartbreaking secret which he saves for the very end of the day.

I will not spoil Tristan’s final revelation for you. All I will say is that after having read the book I had to go for an hour’s walk, just to process what I had read. It cast an entirely new light on the previous bits of the novel and on Tristan himself, and made so much sense! It cast an entirely different light on Tristan as a character and the significance of his and Marian’s meeting. Boyne did a really good job structuring the book and writing such multilayered and complex scenes.

“Twenty boys. And only two came back. One who went mad, and myself. And that does not mean we survived it. I don’t think I did survive it. I may not be buried in a French field but I linger there. My spirit does, anyway. I think I am just breathing air, that’s all. And there is a difference between breathing and begin alive.”

The meeting between Tristan and Marian, and later between Tristan and Will’s parents, is not an easy one. Marian and her family are often shunned by their local community after the war for Will’s ‘cowardice’. Grieving for and constantly having to defend her brother has made Marian a bit difficult. She swings between being angry at Tristan for surviving, compassionate, understanding and annoyed at his every turn of phrase. Their meeting is much more enjoyable for not following the lines of a Hollywood cliche – the two do not instantly like each other, nor do they form a life long friendship, but their meeting is important and will shape their life forever.

“I respect them, of course, and pity them for fighting for so long in such terrible conditions. I am sure that they were terribly brave. But when I think of what they did to my brother, what these same soldiers did to him, well, I’m sure you can understand that at such times my feelings are less than generous.”

I liked Tristan from the very first page. Yes, he is rather depressed, but who would not be after what he has been through! Also he survived not only going off to war but being thrown out from his family aged 16 as well. When Tristan’s father understood that his teenage son was gay, Tristan was left entirely to his own devices. He has grown up to be a thoughtful and gentle person, in spite of how life has treated him. This is in contrast to Will’s personality. Where Tristan is focused on his own survival, Will want’s to stop the war entirely. He is a vicar’s son, who has left behind a loving and supportive family, and although he is opposed to the war from the beginning, he goes to France so as not to shame is father. Will and Tristan have entirely different perspectives on life, Will an idealist and Tristan a realist, but Tristan still falls in love with Will. Marian and her family clearly do not know this about aspect to Tristan and Will’s friendship, but that is not the big secret Tristan is hiding.

“‘It’s the principle that matters.’
‘It is not, actually,’ I insist. ‘It is life and death that matters’.”

What did Will really feel for Tristan? Did he love Tristan in return? Boyne leaves this open to interpretation. Yes, Will did initiate sex with Tristan several times, but then he kept rejecting Tristan as more as a friend. Personally, I felt that Will’s actions stemmed more from internalized homophobia, uncertainty about his own sexuality and a life in crisis rather than from him not loving Tristan. Perhaps Will just could not face the shame of being gay/bisexual? Anyway, although Will in the end acted in such a principled and brave fashion when it came to opposing the war, I cannot help feeling that he was coward for not facing up his feelings for Tristan (whatever they may have been) and for treating Tristan so badly.

I loved this book and think I will have to return to again some time. It left me gutted, but in a good way. I recommend it highly.

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