book review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

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THE ABSOLUTIST by John Boyne
★★★★★
Other Press, 2012

 

The Absolutist is a tender and harrowing exploration of love, betrayal, bravery, and cowardice, set in the trenches in France during World War I. The story begins in 1919, with twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler making a trip to Norwich to deliver some letters to the sister of a man who had died in the war, Will Bancroft. Through a series of flashbacks, Boyne explores the relationship between Tristan and Will, and while it’s clear from the beginning that there isn’t going to be a happy ending, it ended up being even more devastating than I had expected. This book ripped my heart out, so naturally, I loved it.

Tristan Sadler is everything I could want from a narrator – complex, sympathetic, flawed, and seeking atonement, and though his guilt is present from the first page, it isn’t until you’re deep into the story that you really understand the extent of it. Tristan’s struggle with his identity as a gay man provides the novel with its central conflict, which Boyne addresses with sensitivity and nuance.

Boyne’s prose is understated and compelling, as he deftly weaves together this complex tale, whose barely-300-pages belies its thematic richness. From the synopsis I was expecting a rather cut and dry love story, but the reality of this novel is more intricate and unexpected, and a lot sadder.

This is only the second John Boyne novel I’ve read after The Heart’s Invisible Furies, but both left me awestruck, devastated, and wanting to pick up another Boyne novel immediately. The Absolutist and its characters will haunt me.