Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Absolutist

John Boyne
Random House  NZ RRP 39.99

Reviewed by Maggie Rainey-Smith

This is a gripping tale, not for the squeamish because you will find yourself fully immersed in the muddy fields and rat-infested trenches of the Great War, as told through the eyes and heart of Tristan Sadler.   But too, this novel is a tender love story in spite of its tragedy and the horrors of war.   It begins in an almost cinematic way, in 1919, after the war, with Tristan aboard a train bound for Norwich talking to a famous author he recognises.   And the opening line “Seated opposite me in the railway carriage, the elderly lady in the fox-fur shawl was recalling some of the murders that she had committed over the years.” ... seems more of a ruse to engage the reader at the start, but becomes more meaningful.
               Tristan is travelling to Norwich ostensibly to return some letters to Marion Bancroft, the sister of his friend Will Bancroft, letters that were sent to Will at the battle front.   But there is a darker more tragic reason for his journey.   They meet in a cafe in Norwich and the story unfolds – it is a retrospective, but although it is a retelling, it unfolds into a very shocking and real story within a story, not softened by retrospection, rather more highlighted.   Martian and Tristan’s relationship frames the novel, but the real story lies within.

                 It is the story of Tristan Sadler the son of a butcher from Chiswick and of his friendship with Will Bancroft, son of a vicar from Norwich. They meet and train together at Aldershot before heading to the battlefields of the Great War.   The war feels immediate and very real and I think the best writing is in the descriptions of the trenches, the men and their relationships with each other and the portrait of the ever increasing madness of Sergeant Clayton.   There are some very brutal descriptions and none more so than the capture of a young and terrified German lad, which leads to the unravelling of the true story and sets the scene for the tragic and indeed shocking denouement.
               Cowardice in all its forms is explored in an interesting conversation between Tristan and Will when the men have a crucial difference of opinion on the meaning of life and death and the nature and legality of killing the enemy and under what circumstances.   Sometimes I couldn’t quite believe the choices characters made, but indeed, there would be no good stories, if people behaved the way we expected. Indeed I found Tristan’s family and their heartless behaviour towards him before the war, almost unbelievable.   And yet the horrors of the war were believable, except of course shocking.  At times too, I felt the story almost exploitative with so many tragic themes, but it is well written and compelling.  The love story, central to this tragedy is very believable and beautifully portrayed.   The reader is never quite able to second guess the outcome, and remains (well, this reader anyway) avidly engaged until the final page.

               If you haven’t read “Birdsong” by Sebastian Faulks or even if you have, this is another terrific insight into the Great War, the trenches, the inhuman conditions, the mud, the proximity of the enemy, the madness and too, most explicitly, the attitudes of the day around conscientious objectors “feather men” and as the title suggests, ‘the Absolutist’, a term I had not heard of before.  Yes absolutely, this novel explores this theme and you will be left without any doubt as to its meaning.  A compelling and absorbing read about love, war, and morality in all its variances, the way in which back then, a man could bring shame upon his family.  John Boyne also wrote ‘the Boy in Striped Pyjamas’ which I have read, and it is a book I feel that worked much better in print than on the screen being aware how easy it is risk exploitation when dealing with the big and tragic themes.  Although having said that, I imagine ‘the Absolutist’ would translate very well into a movie.

Maggie Rainey-Smith (right) is a Wellington-based author and regular reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.    


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