The Absolutist by John Boyne / ★★★★★
Summary: Tristan Sadler personally delivers a package of letters to the sister of the deceased Will Bancroft, a man he fought alongside during World War I. But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan’s visit. As Tristan recounts the past, the true nature of his relationship with Will and the burden he has kept hidden surrounding Will’s death is reluctantly revealed.
And if I don’t see him, I will convince myself that he has been picked off in the last few hours and I will throw myself over anyway, an easy potshot for the snipers, for what is the purpose of continuing if he does not?
Genre: Historical Fiction
This is the second John Boyne novel I’ve read, and he’s done it again and absolutely killed me with it. The Absolutist is a story of love and betrayal and an exploration of courage and cowardice. Tristian Sadler joins World War I after he is forced from home, and there he meets Will Bancroft. They form a fast friendship, which crosses the line of something more- but this is not a romance, this is not a hopeful tale even of friendship, and it turned out far more devastating than I thought it would.
The Absolutist is a relatively short book, only about 300 pages, but it takes its time weaving together a complex story, revealing the gray areas of life in a time period and setting that doesn’t want to struggle with them. It tells of Tristan’s time in the war in flashbacks while we see Tristan return Will’s letters to his sister in 1919, after the war. I loved how the story of Tristan’s past was slowly revealed, how things I didn’t understand at the beginning grew to make sense. As I was reading, I thought I knew where this story was going. Even as Boyne slowly reveals the story and my predictions altered along with it, I was still sure I had a vague idea of how it would end. I was completely wrong, of course, and even had I predicted it correctly I don’t think I could have predicted the nature of the ending, which shocked and horrified me. This is a devastating book, and I loved it.
I had very high expectations for this book and it blew me away. It’s exploration of cowardice in particularly will stick with me.
Boyne creates such fantastically flawed and sympathetic characters, and Tristan is now among my very favorites. His guilt is a thick presences throughout the novel, and only as the novel digs deeper in to Tristan’s time during the war, and into Tristan’s childhood as a young boy discovering his sexuality, do we really understand how deep it goes and how the past has left terrible scars on him. Tristan is a fantastic, fantastic character.
I’ll leave Will for you to meet him if you read the novel, but I do have to mention Will’s sister, Marion. I wasn’t sure what I expected from her, but she was excellent and her sprawling and temperamental conversations with Tristan were what I love about John Boyne’s writing.
Boyne’s writing was fantastic, as always. He writes such a nuanced, steadily paced story in a relatively short book. What struck me in The Absolutist was the particularities with his word choice- even just one word would make a scene stand out to me and make it memorable, or haunting. And like in The Heart’s Invisible Furies, his long scenes of dialogue are some of the most entertaining parts of the story.
Was I satisfied?
YES. This book is going to haunt me. I loved it so much.