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Review of The Absolutist by John Boyne

Briefly, The Absolutist is a story set mostly in the trenches of the First World War, alternatively narrated in present tense in the trenches and told in retrospective in Norwich in 1919. Tristan Sadler has letters to deliver to Marian, sister of his friend Will Bancroft. Will was shot as a traitor and a coward and Tristan wishes to deliver Will’s letters and his own secret to Marian.

While a seemingly simple and easy read on the surface, The Absolutist deals with complex subject matter through conversation, flashbacks and the fractured mirror of memory. Marian represents the misunderstood face of feminism, having been part of the Suffragette movement and still frustrated by how far the movement had to go then (and still has to go now). Tristan is gay in an age where it is treated as a court martial offence and is spoken of as so Other that no one will even refer to it by name. Will struggles with what it means to be a ‘feather man’, a term used for men who could not or would not enlist. (Many men who were not considered physically fit for the army were often humiliated in public by being handed white feathers despite their desire to serve.)

The Absolutist is not for everyone, and definitely not for fans of happy endings. There’s no glamour, no glory and a great deal of hard questions. I suppose one could classify it as literary, perhaps. Definitely for those who loved Atonement by Ian McEwan (which is definitely one of the 20 best books I’ve ever read). But that’s not to say that it shouldn’t be read by anyone. I think it would make a fine setwork for schools, after all. And I feel richer for having read it, so that makes it more than worthwhile.

John Boyne is no stranger to difficult material, so fans of The Absolutist might also enjoy his earlier works. Of these works, The Boy in Striped Pajamas is probably one of the best known. Below we’ve listed Boyne’s backlist, filled with excellent, thought-provoking works.

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