Splicing scenes from Tristan Sadler's visits to Norwich, England (1919) with flashbacks of his training days in Aldershot, England and his struggles in the trenches of World War I France (1916), then forwarding to an evening in his life as an 81-year-old author in London (1979), John Boyne's The Absolutist examines one man's lifetime of unresolved guilt. These feelings partly stem from spurned homosexual love in a time when such partnerships were considered crimes.
Sadler is the anti-hero who cannot forgive himself for his role in the death of Will Bancroft, the titular absolutist who begins as a fellow recruit and later renounces fighting after witnessing the killing of a prisoner-of-war. Also a friend and sexual partner who refuses to consider their encounters as more than aberrations, Bancroft emerges as a flawed yet mythologized man - all of which creates a dramatic plot that depends on secrecy and revolves around Sadler's pain. Readers do not learn the exact circumstances of Bancroft's death until late in the novel, and when they are revealed, the emphasis on Sadler's response makes him appear both immature and impulsively cruel. Sadler's later decision about his own future adds yet another sensational facet.
The Guardian and The Independent have both remarked on the novel's emotionally charged premise. The former notes the tendency for scenes to become "a 'scene', in the sense of some initial niceties... giving way to raised voices and probably concluding in a resonant slamming of doors." The latter comments on the presence of "almost too much tragedy" - and while some readers may find the material unsympathetic, the author raises worthy questions, including the consequences of holding fast to unchangeable events.
Boyne's rendering of Marian Bancroft (Will's sister, and the reason for Sadler's journey to Norwich) also helps invigorate the material. Conflicted, temperamental, charming, forgetful, loyal to her brother's memory, and unforgiving, she is complex where others seem defined by a handful of traits. Her story elevates the plot as Sadler must consider the effects of facing the family of someone he has harmed. Readers who are intrigued by the period and by the author's previous award-winning novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, will appreciate this latest exploration of psychological trauma on the Western Front. Boyne avoids a facile, redemptive about-face, weaving a risky - even inevitable - conclusion.
This review is from the August 22, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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