Review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

September 1919:20 year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver some letters to Marian Bancroft, letters that she’d sent to her brother Will. Will and Tristan trained and fought together.

But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan’s visit. He holds a secret deep in his soul. One that he is desperate to unburden himself of to Marian, if he can only find the courage.

As they stroll through the streets of a city still coming to terms with the end of the war, he recalls his friendship with Will, from the training ground at Aldershot to the trenches of Northern France, and speaks of how the intensity of their friendship brought him from brief moments of happiness and self-discovery to long periods of despair and pain.

Review by Erastes

I’ve redacted a bit of the blurb because it gives away a major spoiler in the book, which is kept from the reader for almost half of the pages, so it seems a bit unnecessary to give it away so easily in the blurb. Cut for spoilers.

I was immediately drawn to the book because it’s partly set in my stamping ground of Norfolk. The protagonist Tristan is on his woay to Norwich at the beginning to meet a mysterious someone or other which is nicely protracted until it needs to be revealed. There’s a irritating and lengthy section in his boarding house which achieved nothing other than to tell the reader “oh no, homosexuality is verboten in England” as if they wouldn’t know and “people don’t like it” which of course they know too. It all serves to hint that, “hello readers, Tristan might be a homosexual” which was a bit heavy handed.

I enjoyed the story being told–it’s told in two major time frames, that of Tristan in the present, in Norwich and what transpires there and because of that–and Tristan in the past, going through basic training at Aldershot and then shipping to France. It also dips into other flashbacks here and there. I found the tenses annoying, but that’s probably because–again–I thought it unnecessary and rather self-conscious for the author to have past tense in the present section and then present tense in the past section. It wasn’t confusing, it just struck me as “author being authory.” Personally, the more immediate time line would seem more natural to be present tense, but what do I know.

As for the book in general, it wasn’t mind-blowing. For the most part it read no better and no worse than most gay historicals that I read for this blog. The ARC I had from NetGalley didn’t have the author’s name on it so it wasn’t until I finished it that I sought out the publisher and then the author. Firstly I was gobsmacked that it was published by Doubleday and I thought “surely I would have heard if someone I knew had got such a prestigious publisher?” because I thought it must have been written by someone I knew, or knew of. It wasn’t until I went further that I found it was by Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

This did amuse me because I had judged the book without knowing that the author was famous. And frankly, you can’t tell. It’s had (I have since seen, as I don’t allow myself to look at reviews until after I’ve read a book) some amazing reviews but I wouldn’t call the book amazing. It’s a good read, absorbing, interesting etc, but for someone well-versed in gay historicals, you won’t find anything particularly new here, and if Doubleday are publishing this, then they certainly should be publishing Heidi Cullinan and Jessica Faraday, Alex Beecroft and many others, people who are writing fresher material. It’s not a bad story, it’s just nothing new.

The protagonists are all nicely bonkers, in as much as they deny their feelings left right and centre and act irrationally at every given opportunity but that’s simply par for the course, particularly for something set at this time and place. Although I do understand a desperate gay man’s desire for companionship, particularly in a world where this is hard to achieve, I found it difficult to believe in Tristan’s clinging loyal affection when Will is such a self-deluded nasty piece of work, using Tristan for his own selfish ends, and then not only dropping him but cutting him out of his life so completely. There comes a point where you know that Tristan has lost faith in everything: the government, the war–all he knows exists is this particular moment of horror which leads on to the next one and I thought “yes! now he’ll tell Will to drop dead” but it never really happened.

Boyne writes very cinematically–which probably explains why his books are optioned by Hollywood–and the description and research is lightly done, but with just enough detail to anchor you entirely to a place. You see what the protagonist sees, you eat and drink what he does, and it’s not done in a “got to fill in four pages here, let’s have some tea” kind of way.

Some of the dialogue is annoyingly modern and deeply anachronistic e.g. “We were an item” and “teenager” which was quite jarring, and the characters all speak each others names all the time which an editor really should have lessened as people just don’t do that. There’s a smidge of overwriting here and there with conversations dragged out to the point when I shouted “oh for God’s sake, he’s told you that already!” One of these however is deliberate (I’m pretty sure, as Tristan denies his close friendship with Will three times to his superior officer and it rather smacked of Gethsemane and it was then I knew how the book was going to end.

The secondary flash back, which deals with Tristan’s first love, Peter, is rather confusing. We are introduced to Peter as being a very early childhood friend, and then to Sybil, the Yoko to their John and Paul, and it’s all a bit skated over–I don’t know if this is because this is a mainstream publisher, but this is the first indication that Tristan is homosexual and I was left thinking “what?” after I read it.

As my sixteenth birthday approached I grew more tormented. My feelings towards Peter had clarified themselves in my head by now—I recognized them for what they were—and they were only amplified by my inability to verbalize or act upon them. I would lie in bed at night, curled into a tight ball, half encouraging the most lurid fantasies to energize the dark hours, half desperate to dismiss them out of pure fear of what they implied.

Which is all very well, but this is literally the first time any feelings for Peter have been mentioned, in fact, Peter has not been introduced other than as “the reason Tristan left home.” We are told that they were friends from the cradle, and two pages later, we have this “I recognized them for what they were.” It would have been less rushed if we’d been allowed to see the affections changing from boyhood chums to love from Tristan’s perspective. This smacks rather of coding–if you weren’t aware of what he’s on about it’s possible you could misunderstand, although unlikely. It’s just that coded sexuality belongs to another century, not this one. Plus this boy is fifteen, I’d like to know what these feelings mean to him, but we aren’t shown that either. In a world where there would be nothing but negative implications to discover you were homosexual you’d think he’d be a bit more disturbed.

He’s not a Gary-Stu exactly, but I do think that the author has imbued him with a lot more maturity and knowledge than perhaps he would have had in real life. He was born in a flat in Chiswick and his father was a butcher. Therefore he couldn’t have gone to any really decent school, and he was forced to leave his school at sixteen anyway, so his education is woefully incomplete. He went to work on a builder’s site until he was 17 – so about a year.  As the book begins he’s twenty but he thinks and speaks with the deep sophistication of a thirty year old Oxbridge graduate discussing morality and philosophy with all and sundry. He’s working for a publishers, who took him on after the war. This rather baffled me because where did he get the education for that?

It’s most definitely not a romance, and I’m afraid that the ending left me pretty cold. I didn’t even well up over it because although Tristan calls Will “his lover” there’s no way in earth anyone else but Tristan could have labelled him thusly. Tristan then eschews ALL human contact from then on, and lives 60 odd years all alone and martyred and frankly I wanted to bop him one on the nose.

I think that a gay historical these days can reflect more than self-loathing, and although what happened to Will was tragic (and I should stress that, as expected, the war sections are all tragic and horrible and well written) I found the whole “I’m gay and so I shall never touch another man for the rest of the my life” thing tired and trite. And rather last century.

But all in all–although it was nothing much to write home about, it kept me reading, and although I know it was pretty pointless, I wished Tristan well. But if I had known who it was by and who published it before I’d read it, I probably would have expected something a lot better, and not so old-fashioned in terms of dead, suffering gays.

Author’s Website

Amazon UK   Amazon USA

5 Responses

  1. All right, the “dead, suffering gays” bit has put me off the book entirely—this is one I’ll skip.

    Nowadays I prefer to read material which, if not exactly complete with a “happy ever after” ending, is at least considerably more positive and upbeat. I’ve totally had it with stories where the gay guy has to be unhappy or conflicted or unfulfilled his for his entire life, and can’t be bothered with them.

  2. it’s the level of self-loathing that stands out–a case of a quick fumble and then “ew get away from me” Tristan debases himself wanting to be friends with someone like that–it is deeper than that–but considering T seemed to be clued up on his sexuality (more Stu-ness) it wouldnt have killed the author to have him live a more pleasant life–even Brokeback had some happy. this had zero.

  3. Thank you for saving me $15. I was about to order this.

  4. I changed my mind, finished the novel this morning and agree with every single word in your review. The self-loathing of all concerned in this one reminds me of nothing so much as “Dancer from the Dance.” The business with Peter, the boyhood friend, is simply irritating in that Tristan mentions it several times as if the reader is supposed to know all about it and how important it is before finally getting around to actually explaining it. The beautiful, odious Will seems a riff on “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and, in the final confrontation, his sister seems to know more about the details of Will’s execution, and Tristan’s role in it, than has been revealed in the text. Beautiful writing but then so is the lyrical prose of “Dancer,” “The Beauty of Men” and so many tales of love lost to AIDS, age and declining beauty. The ending? Pure Victoriana.

    • Oh dear – sorry you felt the same about it, although I don’t know how anyone who knows the genre well could do much else–and sorry you wasted $15! However it’s gratifying that a second pair of eyes thought the same.

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