Book Review: The Absolutist
Irish author John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) for years has wanted to write a novel with a gay main character, but needed the right story. Released last month in the U.S., The Absolutist is that story. Set during, and shortly following, the Great War (WWI) – historical fact being a recurring theme in the majority of Boyne’s published works – The Absolutist is deep and forlorn as the dank trenches described in it:
We live here, beneath the ground like cadavers, and carve streets into the terrain, then we name them and erect signposts to give us the illusion that we remain part of a common humanity … It’s easy to get lost if you don’t know where you’re going, and God help the man who is not where he is supposed to be when he supposed to be there.
Bloodied battles, are not however, the anchor to Boyne’s story, although they too are not without importance. The year is 1919, one year since the end of the Great War. Tristan, a 21-year-old veteran soldier and aspiring writer from London, seeks out a stranger named Marian, perchance bringing redemption and closure to a past unhinged. Upon his arrival in Norwich, England, his history of foolhardiness resurfaces, reigniting doubt and fear, and particular skepticism from Marian. Through a series of frill-less and painful memories during a few months in 1916, from training camp to the battlefields of France, Tristan tells Marian of his tumultuous “friendship” with her brother Will, a fellow soldier.
Boyne’s development of the main characters, Tristan and Will, are hauntingly human and the onset of their relationship is an all-too-familiar account to anybody who has ever ached for belonging. Even the most inconsequential supporting characters have depth and dimensions so indelible they offer some relatability, even to those who have never been to war.
“…I let the painting come together before my eyes. I start to recognize the brushstrokes and the intention of the artist. … I say this, Mr. Sadler, because you remind me of a painting. That last remark of yours, I don’t quite know what it means but I feel that you do.”
Writing the past in present tense and the present in past tense is, by far, Boyne’s most brilliant move. It signifies Tristan’s inability to move on, that his past is still present, that it’s always at the forefront. With Boyne’s aptitude in children’s literature, the language is straightforward and without pomposity – a story simply unfolds, laying out an intricate response.
The Absolutist is a great piece of storytelling; Tristan’s frailty and Will’s pretense of apathy and the remnants of war do all but save romanticism. I was intrigued almost immediately into the first chapter and as I continued to read, I was intermittently reminded of, and questioned, my own treatment of people; though I’ve not experienced firsthand many of the moments in the book, I appreciate Boyne’s insight of the complexities of human nature and how our emotions dictate who we will become at any given moment. Some may “conscientiously object” to The Absolutist, but they will not deny, or forget, its bone-jarring effect.