Author: John Boyne, 2011
Genre: Period Fiction. World War I. War. GLBT.
Other Details: Hardback. 309 pages.
In the autumn of 1919, twenty-one year old Tristan Sadler travels from London to Norwich to meet with Marian Bancroft and return the letters she had written to her brother Will while he was serving in France during the Great War. In 1917, Will had laid down his guns on the battlefield and declared himself an absolutist, an extreme form of conscientious objector. His fate from this act had subsequently brought shame and dishonour to the Bancroft family.
During the course of the day with Marian, Tristan recalls his intense friendship with Will, from their time training together at Aldershot to the trenches of Northern France. He shares with Marian how her brother came to the decision to lay down his weapons despite the known consequences. Throughout the encounter with Marian, Tristan remains conflicted about how much he will be able to share about the events and his feelings for Will. The full story is slowly revealed through flashbacks and conversations between Tristan and Marian.
This was a beautifully written, intense and thoughtful novel that deals sensitively with issues such as war and individual conscience, guilt and shame as well as the fragility of the human heart. I found it a deeply moving melancholic work. It does contains scenes of trench warfare, which Boyne delivers in harrowing detail. Given the vivid first person narration it is impossible not to feel immersed in the experience including rotten food, lice, rats and mud let alone the ever-present threat of death.
This was an amazing work of fiction and I just cannot fathom why it was not up for the Man Booker Prize this year though its May publication date may have had something to do with that. Aside from the quality of the writing and the universal themes it explored it was also a very readable novel with good pacing which held my attention from the opening page to the last.
Although it has emerged as one of my favourites for 2011, I never would have normally picked it up . However, I had accompanied a friend to an 'Evening with John Boyne' event organised by Birmingham Libraries in May. John was reading from his newly published novel as well as discussing his previous work. I was intrigued by the readings from The Absolutist and so checked it out of the library when I saw it on the shelf.