40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2012
Have you ever read a book that so upset you, so pissed you off, that you kept thinking-well when I finish this; I am going to write to this author and give him a piece of my mind, and then you realize that the piece of your mind that you want to give him is that he has written a book-that has in it's transformative power, touched you at the most raw places in your mind and heart? Such was my experience with "The Absolutist" by John Boyne, an Irish writer most well known for his bestselling children's book "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." This is a book that is difficult to fit into a specific niche. Although there is a sexual relationship between two men, it can in no way be neatly packed away into the genre "Gay Literature." "A War Story", yes perhaps, but not one that hits you in the face like, let's say "All Quiet on the Western Front." No this writer is far too good for the direct hit approach; he instead relies on the slow sly systems used to write a good novel, the building of character and plot through action and description and suggestions. There is a scene in the book which I read through the veil of my tears where one knows that there can be no good outcome, but Mr. Boyne skillfully keeps you out there on the skinny branches, hoping against hope that something will happen that will change the probable consequences, but when the inevitable comes to fruition, you have the feeling of being sucker punched in the gut. At the end of the day, it can best be described as "A Morality Tale", but oh what a tale is told along the way. This is not a book that I will find easy to have in person discussions about, it took charge of a part of my heart that I am pretty sure will make it all but impossible to discuss without, quite frankly, losing it. I am an avid reader, averaging 40-50 books a year, and one of the reasons that I am compelled to keep reading as much as I do is that every once in a while something comes along that is so extraordinary, so thought provoking that it makes me realize that I have to reorganize my list of the best books that I have ever read. "The Absolutist" by John Boyne is such a book.
82 of 92 people found the following review helpful
John Boyne's "The Absolutist" is the story of two British WW1 soldiers who are bonded through the terrors of the trenches and the horrors of warfare. One survives - forever damaged - and the other one is brought down by a firing squad on charges of cowardice.
The term "absolutist" is applied to a soldier who refuses to fight or take part in any wartime actions. They are different from "conscientious objectors", who were willing to serve in auxiliary roles at the front, i.e., nurses, stretcher bearers, ambulance drivers, etc. "Absolutists" refused - point-blank - to serve at all. These two men - only 18 years old when they meet at training school and then are sent to France to fight - are witnesses - and sometime participants - in brutality beyond description.
Tristan Sadler survived the war, returning to London and an entry-level job in the publishing industry. Still shattered by war-time experiences, he contacts the sister of his friend who was killed by the firing squad. Sadler has letters that his friend, Will Bancroft, had entrusted to him. These were letters to Will from his sister, Marian, and Sadler feels honor-bound to return the letters to Marian. He travels to Norwich to meet Marian and her parents. The Bancroft family is living as pariahs in their community because of the way Will Bancroft met his end.
Disgraced as the family of a "coward", Sadler tries to explain to them the circumstances of Will's declaration of his "absolutism" in wartime and the attendant result.
But there are secrets that Tristan cannot tell Will Bancroft's mourning family. And these secrets are what John Boyne so cunningly dole out in his novel. There's no black-and-white here, except maybe in the horrors of the trenches. Each character is nuanced, as are the situations that arise in the book.
Boyne's book is absolutely excellent. It's sad that "The Absolutist" is not yet available in the US; I bought my copy at an English-language bookstore in Berlin.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Although most of The Absolutist centers on the horrors of World War I, Irish author John Boyne has created a novel which goes beyond the typical "war story" and becomes also a study of character and values. This broader scope allows the novel to appeal to a wider audience interested in seeing the effects of war on the main character, Tristan Sadler, as he lives the rest of his life. More a popular novel than a "literary" novel in its style, Boyne has constructed the plot with alternating time settings - before, during, and after the war - to take full advantage of the elements of surprise. The author often hints at personal catastrophes or dramatic events in one part of the novel, creating a sense of suspense and foreboding, then develops these secrets in grand fashion in another part, keeping the pace so lively that it is difficult for the reader to find a place to stop.
The novel begins in 1919, when Tristan Sadler, now twenty, arrives in Norwich, England, to return the letters that his deceased friend Will received from his sister during the war. Though war has been over for nine months, Tristan still suffers from nervousness and stress-related shaking, particularly of his right hand and index finger. Flashing back three years, the author then presents Tristan as a seventeen-year-old who has been thrown out of home and family. With no one who cares whether he is alive or dead, he enlists and trains as a soldier at Aldershot under a sadistic sergeant, totally committed to the war and to the killing. Eventually, he and his group of twenty men sail for France.
As the action of the novel follows Tristan back and forth between Norfolk in June, 1919, and France in July - September, 1916, the author creates suspense by having the characters in 1919 refer to events from 1916 which the author has not yet introduced, leaving the reader to wonder about the mysteries that underlie Tristan's visit. Some of these mysteries also evolve from Tristan's memories of his own childhood, some of which connect with what happens in France. Two characters in his group in France prove to be conscientious objectors, and they chat with Tristan about their feelings. Serving as stretcher-bearers, many of whom die, these men have dared to challenge the "moral absolute" of war and do not fire their guns.
Though author Boyne provides plot twists galore, the pattern of the plot structure itself eventually becomes predictable, with constant loose ends leading to mysteries which are then reconciled through new information. At times, the reader may feel manipulated, his/her feelings held captive by the author until he can reveal yet another surprise. Any big questions about characters arise from information withheld, rather than from conclusions the reader develops for him/herself on the basis of the action, a more subtle approach. In fact, the first "surprise" of the novel is one most readers will guess almost immediately. Tristan's appearance in the conclusion as an eighty-year-old man, brings his life up to date, as he reviews his decisions and behavior, but it also feels artificial - and convenient. The novel presents thoughtful contrasts between "absolutists" and those who see compromise as essential to survival, and though the novel is very serious, with no humor to leaven it, The Absolutist is a riveting and fast-paced experience.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2012
Since I usually find novels of WWI extremely interesting I was looking forward to reading John Boyne's THE ABSOLUTIST, particularly in light of all the favorable buzz it has already gotten. And I was aware going into the book that the story centered around a gay relationship between two English soldiers. Unfortunately that 'relationship' never quite seemed to take shape. The attraction between Tristan Sadler and Will Bancroft was more of a tentative and fearful dance that never quite found its rhythm. Which is, I know, understandable and probably absolutely authentic, given the tone of the repressive Victorian times. Will himself is incapable of acknowledging his own sexual inclinations, obviously terrified of how it would ostracize him and ruin his life. But the pain and heartache that Tristan's 'unnatural' feelings toward first his schoolmate, Peter, and then, later, Will, have caused him and others are made all too evident in this, his secret autobiography.
But while the narrator's homosexuality is always paramount in his tale, there is also a strong anti-war theme throughout, as evidenced first by ill-fated Wolf and then later by Will, who, after witnessing an unconscionable cold-blooded murder by a fellow soldier, becomes not just a conscientious objector, but the 'absolutist' of the title.
Boyne's framing of the story with post-war events, flashbacks and a decades later final 'epilogue' was not, in my estimation, very effective. In fact it served mostly to draw out the story in such a way that it often veered toward the tedious. As a character, Will's sister Marian was not really very effective or believable, and seemed more to be a forced vehicle to insert yet another theme: suffrage and women's rights. There is also a telling scene between Tristan and Corporal Wells in which Tristan vehemently denies any close friendship with the condemned Will, and not once, but three times, in much the same way Peter denied Christ. Another undeveloped theme there perhaps? Maybe Boyne just tried to do too many things in his story. In an attempt to create suspense about the 'terrible thing' Tristan had done, the device of the fluttering forefinger instead serves to telegraph what this great secret is.
I wanted very much to like THE ABSOLUTIST, but often became impatient with is circular constructions and vacillation between themes. A better and more straightforward look at attitudes toward homosexuality in England can be found in the books of J.R. Ackerley. And Pat Barker's Regeneration or Frederic Manning's Her Privates We offer much better representations of anti-war themes and life in the trenches. THE ABSOLUTIST is not a bad book, but it certainly could have been better.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 31, 2012
Tristan Sadler, newly 21, travels to Norwich from his London home to take care of an errand he is dreading. He has promised to deliver a sheaf of letters his friend Will Bancroft received while they fought together during World War I to Will's sister. And while this errand dredges up memories of the fighting and the deaths that Tristan would rather not remember, it also forces him to confront his feelings, his actions, and the direction the rest of his life is going to take.
Spending the day with Will's outspoken sister, Marian, as she deals with the frustration and sadness talking about her brother even three years after his death, serves as both a catharsis and a source of great pain and anxiety for Tristan. But in the end, he has the opportunity to unburden his soul of things he has kept hidden for the three years since Will's death, although doing so may not provide the relief he desperately needs.
To say that this book devastated me is an understatement. It is easily one of the most beautifully written, emotionally gripping books I've read this year, and perhaps in some time. John Boyne's storytelling in this book reminds me a little of E.M. Forster--Maurice in particular--and as the book moved toward a conclusion I feared, I couldn't tear myself away yet I didn't want the story to unfold and, ultimately, end. This is a book about relationships, betrayal, courage, and standing up for yourself and your beliefs. This is an almost poetic novel I won't soon forget, although definitely one that doesn't necessarily fill you with happiness and hope. Truly one of the best books I've read all year.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
John Boyne is already a highly regarded writer (perhaps his most famous story is that unforgettable THE BOY IN THE STRIPPED PAJAMAS that described war and its permutations as well as any novel written) and it should come as no surprise that once again he has come up with a story so profoundly moving and so elegantly written that it becomes an instant landmark. Boyne joins the ranks of writers who deal with love stories between men in the time of war and his novel could not be more timely.
The setting for this novel is during the time of and the time after the Great War, with the accompanying fractures and sounds and scars that accompanied that era. In September of 1919 the 20 year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver some letters to Marian Bancroft, the sister of Will, Tristan's closest comrade in battle. Tristan fought alongside Marian's brother during the Great War but in 1917, but Will laid down his guns on the battlefield, declared himself a conscientious objector refusing any role at all in the campaign (and `absolutist') and was shot as a traitor, an act which has brought shame and dishonor on the Bancroft family. The letters Tristan carries are not the real reason for Tristan's visit. He holds a secret deep in his soul, one that he is desperate to unburden himself of to Marian, if he can only find the courage. As they stroll through the streets of a city still coming to terms with the end of the war, he recalls his friendship with Will, from the training ground at Aldershot to the trenches of Northern France, and speaks of how the intensity of their friendship brought him from brief moments of happiness and self-discovery to long periods of despair and pain.
The manner in which Boyne unfolds this story, moving effortlessly back and forth between the war experience and the post war time, is steeped in atmosphere and in language that fearlessly describes the times and the thoughts and the incidents that build toward the rather surprising ending. Tristan is the son of a butcher, a handsome lad never quite accepted as he matures. In the early part of the book (after the war when Tristan is delivering the letters to Marion) Tristan sees himself as wasted physically, his once desirable body now masked by scars and loss of sensuousness. But at the same time he is sensitive to men he meets in the pubs or on the street - the first suggestion that this is a man we will discover has been in a same sex relationship with his beloved Will. It takes great sensitivity on the part of an author to gain the reader's attention and emotional involvement before the facts of the story - at times achingly real and strange - are evident. It is here and in many other areas, where Boyne excels. Writing of this sensitivity and simply verbal beauty is rare. Boyne is rapidly becoming one of the great writers of the century. Grady Harp, September 12
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 2012
I seem to have become a fan of war novels, and John Boyne is a best-selling author, so it was a no-brainer to select "The Absolutist." By page 18, I was regretting that decision, because the book started off painfully, boringly slooooooowww[...] In those first 18 pages, protagonist Tristan Sadler took a train from London to Norwich, experienced complications checking into a boarding house, and went to a pub. The check-in scene contained the most unnecessarily protracted and annoying conversation between Sadler and the owner and her son as to why his room wasn't ready. I was thinking, "Really? Boyne's a best-selling author?" It reminded me of the advice given to us students in one of my writing classes: your introduction/first chapter is often the weakest. Rewrite or edit it after you've completed the work."
So I nearly put the book down, but I pressed on. Once the incredibly long and lifeless first chapter was done, the book finally became interesting and the pace moved along much faster. Told in the first person by Tristan, the book recounts his war experiences in 1916, his meeting with a fellow soldier's sister in 1919, and in the end, an evening in his later life in 1979. Bouncing back and forth between time periods can be distracting or it can effectively build suspense, drama and character, and mercifully, it had the latter effect here.
The book begins in 1919, with Tristan Sadler on his way to see the sister of his best friend in the British military, Will Bancroft. Will died in France and Tristan wants to return the letters his sister Marian sent while he was deployed. But he was greatly affected by Will's death and is struggling with a secret that he can't decide whether to keep. It takes 49 pages to get to the point where he actually meets her in a cafe in Will's hometown. The story then immediately switches to the day Tristan reports for training camp in Aldershot in April 1916. Only seventeen, Tristan has lied about his age to enlist, as he's been kicked out of his family for good. He is foolishly enthusiastic to do his war duty. He meets Will Bancroft there, and a quick and solid friendship with underlying sexual tension develops. Tristan becomes jealous of anyone else who befriends Will. Two dramatic events occur on the eve before they ship out to France for active duty, and both have a direct impact on the remainder of the story and on Tristan and Will's friendship. In the aftermath, Will surprises Tristan with his coldness and callousness toward him, hurting him deeply with his betrayal. Will's temperament controls the nature of their relationship going forward, as he is conflicted about both Tristan and the war they're fighting.
The war scenes are graphic and dramatic, with vivid descriptions of soldiers killed right in front of Tristan. He always believes each day is his last, and the reader can feel the tension along with him. We have the benefit of knowing he survives and Will does not, but Boyne effectively builds the suspense and curiosity as to the reason and timing of Will's demise. He uses both the war stories and Tristan's 1919 meeting with Marian to allude to the truth, and we find out from his meeting with Marian how Will died. But there's still a secret that Tristan is carrying with him, and as the story progresses, the reader realizes it has to do with Will's death. Boyne again surprises the reader with a major plot twist near the end of the book that the secret isn't what we likely suspected, and it's a doozy! (I can't wait for a friend to read this book so I can discuss it with her, since I can't write about it here without ruining the book for all of you!!) A major test of the young soldiers' friendship reveals some major character flaws in both men, and a selective conscience on Will's part.
While the war story part of the book is fast-paced and suspenseful, Tristan's afternoon with Marian is trying. She is moody and alternately combative and conversational, rude and apologetic, nosy and overly forthcoming. I found their conversations annoying (Boyne does need to work on his dialogue!) and her personality rather grating. I felt like I had to endure that part of the book rather than getting absorbed in it, as I did the war scenes. Boyne is adept at developing his characters and making the reader respond emotionally to their plights, both negatively and positively. I felt both sympathy and disgust for Tristan, and both admiration and disgust for Will. (I mainly felt just annoyed by Marian!!)
By the time the 1916 and 1919 stories conclude, the reader is left with a "wow, that's brutal" response to the full story about Will's death. It's easy to experience a full range of emotions regarding his execution, how it came to be, and how it happened. Was it just, unjust, or a little bit of both? It would make for a great book club discussion.
In the end, as it all came together, I was blown away by this story. It was a complete, full story, one that will make the reader think afterward, rather than just putting the book down and picking up the next one on the shelf. I truly wish the massive opening chapter had been significantly shorter, with a lot less of Tristan's internal dialogue to slow things down. Because that internal dialogue alluded to too many things as way of introduction, it slowed the reader down and created too many potential plot lines or events to keep it cohesive. With a better opening chapter, I'd give this book a solid 5 stars. Either way, I highly recommend it!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2012
Who is more courageous: the man who dives over the trench line and enters no-man's land, but becomes deadened to the carnage around him, or the man who refuses to take up arms against other human beings to the extent that he will not even aid his fellow soldiers as stretcher-bearer, courier, or other pacifistic duties (but then faces the consequences of this stance)?
That is one form of courage. And that is only one theme of "The Absolutist." In contrast to courage, fear rides rampant. The fear of death, the fear of others' discovery of one's true nature and their reactions to that discovery. The fear of losing one's humanity in the ceaseless inhumanity of trench warfare. The fear of being alone.
To say that this book is about two young soldiers in World War I who form an uneasy bond and where that bond eventually leads them, is a gross simplification. It's a very complicated book whose "secret" and "eventual outcome" are pretty predictable, but the primary attraction is the character development and a glimpse of how very difficult (and tragic) being true to one's inner self can be.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 28, 2012
Oh my, Oh my, Oh my! I started it this morning and finished tonight. I was pulled in from the first few paragraphs. What an amazing book. World War I, love, and betrayal. Painful and poignant. Even the blurbs on the back cover are correct: gripping, superbly plotted, poetic and page-turning.
Tristan Sadler, Will Bancroft, politics, war, senseless killing, love, nascent homosexuality. All factors that contribute to the story. You can believe it is a autobiography because it seems as if Tristan was indeed the author telling his story. How does Boyne do this so well?
Now, I have another long list of books to read: Boyne's. So many books, so little time as we say. I wouldn't have thought that this would be one of my favorite books of the year (war, loss), but it is. I love it!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2012
Well, this book certainly kept me reading and I enjoyed the first half immensely with its romance,tensions and period details as well as the very convincing portrayal of life in the trenches during the first world war. However I found the ending hurried and not at all believable. For me it did not provide a satisfying conclusion to the various threads in the story which the authour had built up in the first half. I have read other books by John Boyne and would certainly recommend him generally as a writer but I don't think this is his best effort.