The dictionary definitions of “cowardice” and “bravery” pale in comparison to actually deciding what to do in the face of a war as terrible as World War I. In The Absolutist, by John Boyne, everything revolves around questions of bravery and cowardice: in facing apocalyptic combat, revealing one’s sexuality in a setting where it is illegal, concealing terrible secrets. We see men who shout in the face of danger and figuratively whip others into charging the guns. We see men who run. And we see men who are caught in between the extremes. The Absolutist is the fourth book I’ve read by Boyne and I have really come to enjoy the very real ethical dilemmas he creates in fully-realized historical settings.
Tristan Sadler is one of the thousands of veterans living with awful memories of what is sometimes known as the Great War. That war—also called the War to End All Wars with painful historical irony—was catastrophic in so many ways. Jingoism combined with nineteenth-century tactics and weapons of mass destruction to destroy a generation. Tristan lied about his age to join the British Army after his family turned him out. (He kissed a boy.) At training camp, Tristan meets a teenaged boy he has an affinity with—perhaps even a shared attraction. But because all of the boys will be sent to France in just a few short weeks, anything that might be there has an expiration date.
The Absolutist is framed around a long conversation Tristan has with the sister of that teenaged boy, Will, shortly after the end of the war. The book moves back and forth between that conversation and Tristan’s memories of training and his time in the trenches. Every turn of the conversation leads Tristan to a memory of his relationship with Will. Marian becomes the only person Tristan tells the whole truth, from his attraction to Will to the heartbreaking act that Tristan regrets and conceals about as much as his sexuality. There are hints about the tragedy ahead that kept me glued to the pages. It’s Shakespearean in the best possible way.
Will and Tristan constantly discuss cowardice and bravery. It begins with the topic of a conscientious objector in their unit. Wolf is almost universally reviled by the officers and recruits. Will is intrigued. Although he is also a volunteer, he starts to ask questions about fighting. He also starts to wonder if it might actually be braver to stand against everyone by objecting to combat than it is to fight in France. (I would argue that both are forms of bravery.) Tristan, however, is so concerned with keeping his sexuality a secret that he becomes a model of conformity. This includes calling anyone who won’t fight a feather-man (because conscientious objectors were sometimes given white feathers in public, to shame them) or coward. This long-running debate between Tristan and Will—over fighting or objecting to fighting—completely flips when Tristan forces Will to talk about their sexual relationship.
There is so much food for thought in The Absolutist. I would’ve loved to read it with a book group so that I could hash out the questions this novel raises. I also very much enjoyed the rich characterization here. Boyne creates characters that don’t often see. There aren’t any heroes or villains. All of the characters are flawed and utterly human. I can’t say enough how much I relished reading The Absolutist.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.