Friday, 29 July 2011

Price Of Courage

Though The Absolutist was a simple book to review, I'm rather embarrassed by the results, which was published today. Not because it was tucked into a corner of a page of cinema screening schedules.

But, oddly enough, because it's so short.

I couldn't see much to write about. To say too much would give away parts of the novel I'd rather let people read about. And people should give this novel a go. Then, they should probably watch Captain America: The First Avenger.

Review of 'The Absolutist' by John Boyne in print
A novel about World War I soldiers (left) and a movie about
World War II soldiers. Coincidence?

Sure looks like they did a little homework before laying it out. Kind of clever.

Price of courage

first published in The Star, 29 July 2011

Renowned octogenarian author Tristan Sadler is at a prize-giving ceremony that also celebrates his long illustrious literary career.

The evening doesn't go so well, however. An exchange with a rude, callous, young and upcoming writer sours his mood, and he takes it out on a newbie reporter who didn't do his homework before interviewing him. Though the prize is prestigious and rarely given out, he thinks the thing is ugly.

After the ceremony, Tristan returns to his hotel where he finds an elderly woman waiting for him at the lounge. They know each other. She's Marian Bancroft and it appears she has unfinished business with him. This encounter is 60 years in the making and the story leading up to it is in the unpublished manuscript in Tristan's hotel room. Which you would be reading as John Boyne's novel, The Absolutist, if you picked it up.

It's 1919. A much younger Tristan Sadler is on the train from London to Norwich. He makes small talk with an aged female novelist of some renown. He himself is employed by a publisher, a possible foreshadowing of his future in publishing. But his business in Norwich is not with books but letters.

World War I has ended, and he brings letters from the front, presumably unsent, written by his friend Will Bancroft. The letters are addressed to his sister Marian, and there may be a reason why he's delivering the letters himself.

Tristan and Will met at the military town of Aldershot three years earlier, where they trained with other young men – boys, some of them – and formed a bond that strengthened as they faced death and desolation in the trenches during the war.

As the days on the battlefield wear on, they keep a depressing count of their comrades-at-arms who died, deserted or went mad. One day, Will lays down his arms and declares himself an "absolutist" – someone who refuses to contribute even an iota of effort to the war. To the rest of his comrades, he is just another coward. Will is executed as a traitor for his decision, shaming his family's name.

But of course, this isn't the whole story. Besides the letters, Tristan tells Marian why Will objected to the war, but not the circumstances surrounding his death. The letters say nothing; only Tristan knows. But will he find the courage Will had to reveal them?

The Absolutist is short, focused as it is on Tristan, Marian and his friendship with Will. The novel is also a sad, poignant tale of war, of what young men had to endure in the trenches and the shattered lives left in the wake of their deaths. It also sheds some light on Tristan's own sad story, how he came to know Will, and the burden of truth he has borne through the years.

Tightly-woven, straightforward and unpretentious, the writing is an example of fine storytelling and the plot is easy to follow. A nice read overall, even if the story sort of plods along in parts (such as Tristan's vignettes in sleepy Norwich as he struggles with whether to spill the whole bag of beans to Marian). You can imagine this as a full-length feature film as you read, but try not to press the imaginary fast-forward button – that will spoil the whole experience.

I'd say more but because of the brevity of this novel, I'm already treading the thin red line between review and spoiler. Suffice it to say this is definitely worth picking up.

The Absolutist
John Boyne
Doubleday (2011)
309 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-61605-8


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