The Absolutist by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover” goes the old saying, but of course we do. The cover of John Boyne’s 7th adult novel, The Absolutist (2011), tells us a lot: WW I, soldiers, a white feather, trench warfare. So here’s the opening lines,

Seated opposite me in the railway carriage, the elderly lady in a fox-fur shawl was recalling some of the murders that she had committed over the years. ‘There was the vicar of Leeds’s she said, smiling a little …

This is one of the things I like about Boyne: he sparks curiosity, intrigue, interest at every turn.

In 1919, Tristan Sadler, on the eve of his twenty first birthday, is going to Norwich to deliver a bunch of letters to a woman he’s never met. In a pub he thinks about getting drunk, causing a scene, getting arrested, and being put back on the next train to London, then … I wouldn’t have to go through with it.

The woman is Marian Bancroft, the sister of Will Bancroft, the man he met in army training, served with in the trenches of France, who refused to fight anymore, and who was court-martialed and shot. He was also the man Tristan Sadler fell in love with.

There is a melancholic tone to this story, but one in which Boyne trickles out important information and intriguing details which adds to the vivid characterisations and keeps your interest high.

There are two narratives: Tristan’s tough journey in 1919 to see the sister of his secret lover and public traitor, Will Bancroft, and interspersed with this, the events of 1916/17 when he first met Will at army training, and then in the rat and mud infested trenches of France where the devastating climax is revealed. But there is a coda: Tristan and Marian meet 60 years later, in 1979, when he is a famous novelist, and she a prickly woman still, widow, and grandmother, who had never liked reading novels. “Actually, I came around to them in the end. Just not yours.” It’s a bold but satisfying end to “a wonderful, sad, tender book,” says the quote from Colm Tóibín; another bit of truth on the front cover.

Boyne’s adult writing is literary fiction but his style isn’t dry or over written or weighed-down by internal musings. This one, in essence, is a story of a man going on a train to visit a stranger. The interest is why he is going, how (if) he will tell her, and what will happen then? This, of course, depends on Tristan’s backstory which is where the real plot is. Boyne is fundamentally a storyteller and he always does this admirably by putting the plot in the hands and minds of three-dimensional, flawed, but brave characters. The structure also seems right. It’s neat and satisfying and not surprising that the film rights have been bought by Ridley Scott. Although there has been no news about the production since the cast (William Moseley, Jack O’Connell, Derek Jacobi, Joely Richardson, Colin Firth, Vanessa Redgrave) and director (Stephen Daltry) were announced in 2013.

This 2011 work is up there with Boyne’s best.

Highly recommended.

Here is a short video of John Boyne talking about the inspiration for The Absolutist.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

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