The Absolutist – by John Boyne – book review

Disturbing, tragic, and so very sad — this novel from John Boyne recounts the emotional story of two World War I soldiers, who are unable to handle the deep and intimate connection they find in each other. Awarded four stars on Goodreads, though 4.5 stars feels more accurate to me.

The novel begins after the war has ended. Tristen Sadler is nervous, on his way to meet Marion Bancroft, his late comrade’s sister, so that he can return to her the letters she wrote her brother during the war. From the start, it’s an awkward encounter. She is grieving her brother’s death, at odds with her parents, and struggling to adjust to the new norm of post-war England. Sadler struggles to remain patient — in part, because he too is uncomfortable, unsure about whether to share important but difficult information about her brother’s death. 

During the few hours they spend together, flashbacks fill in the story of Tristen’s evolving friendship with Will Bancroft — from their first meeting at the start of basic training, to their deployment to the trenches of France, and eventually, to the moral and ethical conflicts at the heart of both their relationship and the war itself.

This is an intelligent book, and oh so tenderly written. Boyne exposures the very souls of these two young men, still just teenagers, who rush to war looking for glory and excitement, and instead find unimaginable horrors and powerful emotions neither is mature enough to handle. Yet, the consequences of their actions last a lifetime.

John Boyne

This book is totally engrossing, though not an easy read. Or even what I would describe as a pleasant experience. But unlike many other books I’ve read about World War I (and there have been quite a few), this one takes a unique approach to the subject matter, and sensitively sheds light on the impact war has on those who fight in it.

More about John Boyne, a recent discovery who is now one of my favorites.

You may be interested in my review of another Boyne novel: The Heart’s Invisible Furies.