Thursday, July 19, 2012

REVIEW: The Absolutist, by John Boyne

The Absolutist, by John Boyne. Published 2012 by Other Press. Literary Fiction.

The Absolutist is a very fine novel about war, the affects of trauma in its various forms, the definition of cowardice and bravery and the attempt of one man to make peace with some very serious and irreversible decisions he made literally under fire. It's about forgiveness, the inability to forgive, and acts that by their very permanence can never be forgiven. It's also about families broken forever and lives change irrevocably.

The story starts in 1919, when a young man named Tristan Sadler (that's a lot of sadness) goes to Norwich to meet the sister of his very close friend Will, who was killed in the trenches of World War 1. Tristan and Will meet during basic training. Neither is particularly eager for war but Will, who comes from a loving family, wants to do his part. Tristan's family has disowned him; military service is a kind of last-resort suicide mission for him. Their friend Wolf is a "feather man," a conscientious objector who believes it's wrong for governments to order men to kill each other. Wolf's fate is the first nail in the coffin of Will's, and of the complete breakdown of Tristan and Will's relationship. By the time the war is over and Tristan is home, memories and secrets are all he has, and he gives these up to Marian, Will's sister, over tea one day in September.

Tristan starts the novel experiencing post-traumatic stress and the dissociation common with returning soldiers. He holds life at a distance and Boyne communicates that distance through over-precise and cautious prose. I found the novel a little difficult and almost unapproachable in its first sections until I realized that this effect is most likely deliberate. It is interesting to note that Boyne writes the present-day sections of the book in the past tense, and the sections taking place in the past, or during the war, in the present tense, as if it were those events of the war that still hold the most immediacy for Tristan and therefore for the reader. I don't want to tell you too much about Tristan's secrets; if you decide to read this book, and I hope you do, let them roll out the way Boyne intends. They're not all surprising; I guessed the reason for the disowning both accurately and quickly. But the final blow knocked the wind out of me and changed the whole book in an instant. I love it when an author does that.

The Absolutist is not a happy book and it doesn't have a happy ending, but it's haunting and eloquent and beautiful nonetheless. Boyne asks some tough questions and doesn't always answer them the way you think he will. Tristan has a lot to answer for, a lot to atone for, and it's not clear he ever really does. Is he doing Marian a favor by sharing his secrets with her, or is too much to ask? Should some things be left buried? Does it do him any good to let it all out? This is a challenging book and not a light read at all. But it's worth it.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.