BOOK REVIEW: 'The Absolutist': Stunning Anti-War Novel Explores Despair, Rejection, Love, Betrayal

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

BOOK REVIEW: 'The Absolutist': Stunning Anti-War Novel Explores Despair, Rejection, Love, Betrayal
"The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th'inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave."
-- Thomas Gray (1716-1771) "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"



John Boyne's stunning "The Absolutist" (Other Press, 320 pages, $16.96 trade paperback) is an anti-war novel, set during the First World War and thereafter, but it's so much more.


It's the story of the friendship between two teen-age English soldiers, London butcher's son Tristan Sadler, and Norwich vicar's son William (Will) Bancroft, their experiences in basic training in 1916 at Aldershot under brutal Sgt. James Clayton and their ordeal in the trenches of Northern France.


In September 1919 Tristan Sadler, 21, but aged far beyond his years from his experiences in one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver a package of letters to Marian Sadler, the sister of Will Bancroft, his comrade in arms during the Great War.

The letters are not the real reason for Tristan's visit. He's about to tell Marian what really happened to Will in France. He can no longer keep a secret and has finally found the courage to tell her the truth. As Tristan recounts the horrific details of what to him became a senseless war, he also speaks of his friendship with Will -- from their first meeting on the training grounds at Aldershot to their farewell in the trenches of northern France. The misery of trench warfare brough Tristan happiness and self-discovery -- along with confusion and unbearable pain.


John Boyne
John Boyne

As I was reading "The Absolutist" I naturally thought of Stanley Kubrick's 1957 film "The Paths of Glory", also set in Northern France, based on a 1935 novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, with Kirk Douglas as French Colonel Dax, who opposes the decision by his superiors to execute four soldiers for treason during a mutiny. The novel -- and the movie -- was based on a real mutiny.


Boyne explores the lives of Tristan and Will, telling the story of why Tristan lied about his age -- he was 17 when he enlisted, a year below the minimum age for military service -- and why he abruptly left home. Will obviously had to overcome his religious scruples about killing to join the army, but he's driven along by the surge of "patriotism" to join his fellow Norwich classmates to fight and kill people they don't know, for no obvious reason.


In addition to the film, I was reminded of a comment I made last year in my review of a book by Adam Hochschild, "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918" link:

Here's what I said: "If I could go back in time and prevent any historical action from happening, I would travel to Sarajevo, Bosnia -- then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- on June 28, 1914, and kill a Serbian national named Gavrilo Princip before he killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, triggering what became known as the 'Great War' and what we know of today as World War I."


I added "My view is shared to an extent by Scottish-born historian Niall Ferguson, who is quoted in Adam Hochschild's "To End All Wars" as saying the U.K.'s toll from its participation in the Great War was 'the worst thing the people of my country have ever had to endure'.'"


The war was certainly the worst thing to happen to Tristan, Will, Marian and Will's mother and father. John Boyne captures the horror of the war and its aftermath. Tristan spent only a day in Norwich and he never expected to see Marian again. He boards the train for London, his solitary life in a little flat and his job working as an editorial assistant at a publishing firm. Fast forward to 1979, when the noted author Tristan Sadler, 81, is being honored. He has an unexpected visitor. No, I won't reveal the visitor's identity. The author of the best-selling "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" has written an unforgettable story that transcends genres.


Here's an excerpt from Boyne's novel, of an encounter between Will and Tristan:


“Keep it together, Tristan,” he tells me quietly, putting a hand around my shoulder as his eyes search to make and hold a connection with my own, his fingers pressing tightly around my flesh, sending a current of electricity through me despite my grief; it’s only the second time he’s touched me since England—the first was when he helped to lift me off the floor of the deluged trench—and the only time he’s spoken to me since the boat.

“Keep it together, yes? For all our sakes.”

I step closer to him and he pats my arm in consolation, leaving his hand there longer than is necessary.
“What did Rigby mean when he said he was sorry to hear about…well, he didn’t finish his sentence.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I say, moving forward in my grief to put my head down on his shoulder, and he pulls me to him for a moment, his hand at the back of my head, and I am almost certain that his lips brush the top of my hair but then Turner and Sergeant Clayton come into sight, the loud voice of the latter complaining about some new disaster, and we separate once again. I wipe the tears from my eyes and look at him but he’s turned away and my thoughts return to my oldest friend, dead like so many others. I wonder why in God’s name I ever went to look at Rich, Parks, and Denchley’s bodies when I could have been in my foxhole all this time, grabbing a few minutes’ sleep, and knowing nothing about any of this, nothing about home or Chiswick High Street, my mother, my father, Peter, or the whole bloody lot of them.“


About the author

John Boyne was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1971. He is the author of nine novels (seven for adults and two for children), including "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas", which was made into an award-winning film. The novel also won two Irish Book Awards, was short-listed for the British Book Award, reached the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list, and has sold more than five million copies. His novels are published in forty-five languages. He lives in Dublin. His website:

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