The Absolutist by John Boyne

Is it better to tell the truth regardless of the consequences? What is the difference between courage and cowardice? Is love always destructive?

The Absolutist is a wartime novel centred around the relationship between two young soldiers, Tristan Sadler and Will Bancroft. The action alternates between the war in 1916 and a later meeting between Tristan and Will’s sister, Marian, in 1919.

At the outset of the novel, Tristan’s homosexuality has led to the breakdown of his relationship with his family and lost him his childhood friend, Peter with the result that he is essentially alone in the world when, at 19, he goes to train at Aldershot ahead of joining the troops in France.

At Aldershot, he meets Will Bancroft and an uncomfortable and complicated relationship develops between the two characters, each of whom has different wants and needs.

Homosexuality is a strong theme in The Absolutist but it just one of several themes that are well developed and explored in a relatively short novel. These themes include an exploration of the difference between right and wrong, cowardice and courage, the challenge of knowing when is the right time to speak up and when to stay silent and of having the strength of character to act on that knowledge, humanity and the motivation of those who rush abroad to fight wars while having little concern for the welfare of their fellow countrymen at home, guilt, confessions, forgiveness, understanding.

Tightly plotted, The Absolutist is a short novel with a mostly predictable storyline although there are some unexpected twists, particularly towards the end. Characters are not as developed as perhaps they could be and the depiction of the first world war seems strangely flat — particularly when compared with novels like Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy but Boyne is an accomplished and popular story teller and The Absolutist has more than enough going on to make it a good choice for book club discussions.

The Absolutist is published by Doubleday. ISBN 9780385616058, ePub 9781409044864.