First published in August 2012.
The Absolutist begins in Norwich in September 1919, a period in which the country is still coming to terms with the aftermath of the First World War. The novel’s opening line is both gripping and intriguing: ‘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’. Despite this, however, the novel gets off to rather a slow start and seems to meander along, filling space for the sake of it rather than enticing the reader.
Tristan Sadler, a former soldier, has travelled from London to Norwich to meet Marian Bancroft, the sister of one of his comrades in the trenches. Tristan describes how he and Marian’s brother Will ‘were in the same regiment so we knew each other well. We were friends’. He then goes on to say ‘no matter what anyone says, he was the bravest and kindest man I ever knew and there were plenty of brave men out there, I can promise you that, but not so many kind ones’. His aim in visiting Marian is to return the many letters which she sent to her brother during the war, all of which have been bundled together and rather touchingly tied with a strand of red ribbon.
The second section of the novel goes back to Aldershot in 1916, where the soldiers about to be sent to the front, all of them ‘stinking of sweat and bogus heroism’, are being trained up in the town’s military barracks. The relationship which unfolds between Will and Tristan here is rendered sensitively, and the sadness regarding Will’s execution for refusing to fight is moving in places. He is the ‘absolutist’ of the novel’s title, one who is said to do nothing ‘except sit on his hands and complain that the whole thing’s a sham’.
Whilst no details of Tristan’s war experiences are released at the outset of The Absolutist, it is clear that he has suffered from his time in the trenches. He describes his ‘spasmodic right hand’ and ‘trembling index finger’, and is unwilling to talk about his experiences, even when he is pressed to do so. Memories of his pre-war past are occasionally touched upon but are sometimes not fleshed out convincingly enough. We learn a little about his fractured relationship with his family and his father’s last words uttered in anger before Tristan left for war: ‘it would be best for all of us if the Germans shoot you dead on sight’.
The entirety of the book is told from the first person perspective of twenty-one-year-old Tristan. His narrative voice feels rather simplistic throughout and, in consequence, seems lacking. This is perhaps due to it not being overly poetic in its style, or with regard to the way in which the vocabulary used exudes an air of arrogance. Indeed, for at least the first half of the novel, Tristan is not a likeable character. Something about his general demeanour is difficult to warm to. He seems very sure of himself and spends time making up details about each person he meets, an act which renders him incredibly judgmental. He weaves these fabrications into the narrative, following each instance of them with ‘I decided’. As a consequence, we as readers do not really get to know the rest of the characters, and only see Tristan’s sometimes skewed interpretations of them. Throughout, the complete strangers which Tristan encounters seem to be too familiar with him. They seem to give him their entire life story whilst learning barely anything about his life or character in return. This seems a rather unlikely turn of events, and one which does not lend itself well to the novel.
Boyne has included rather a lot of social commentary about conditions at the time – war work for women, the ‘morality’ regarding homosexuals, teenagers signing up to fight – but none of these subjects has been dealt with in detail and have been merely touched upon in rather a fleeting manner. Some of Boyne’s writing, though, is startling and even incredibly powerful at times: ‘The barracks were filled with ghosts… It was as if we died before we left England’. The author is certainly at his best when describing the horrors of the trenches, and he renders a definite sense of poignancy in stark phrases such as ‘the sooner everyone’s killed, the sooner it’s all over’.
The majority of the character descriptions throughout are written well and with much precision. The woman on the train is ‘a sharp combination of lavender and face cream, her mouth viscous with blood-red lipstick’, a young man who runs a boarding house with his mother in Norwich has a moustache which is ‘teased into a fearful line across his upper lip’, and a former soldier encountered on the train platform has one of his eyes ‘sealed across as if he had recently been in a fight’.
Particularly with regard to the first quarter of the book, much of the dialogue feels a little too modern to fit with the period in question. Marian Bancroft’s discourse, however, is pitch perfect for the majority of the exchanges in which she features, and this is one of the definite strengths of the novel.
To conclude, the final three quarters of The Absolutist seem to be rendered with far more strength and skill than that which can be found in the beginning of the novel. The reader does feel some sympathy for Tristan as his story unfolds, and he becomes a more lifelike character in consequence. The unpredictable intricacies woven deftly into the plot render The Absolutist a sad, poignant and unsettling read, but the final section of the book which is told in retrospect does sadly detract from the overall power of the book.
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