“The Absolutist” by John Boyne


A synopsis from the author’s website

September 1919: 20 year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver some letters to Marian Bancroft. Tristan fought alongside Marian’s brother Will during the Great War but in 1917, Will laid down his guns on the battlefield, declared himself a conscientious objector and was shot as a traitor, an act which has brought shame and dishonour on the Bancroft family.

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.

We read this in 2015 and nine of us attended the June meeting to discuss the book. Conversation ranged over various topics including the plausibility of the ending, conscientious objectors, young men joining up, and homosexuality.

Some of our readers said that they had enjoyed the novel. Helen said it was nicely written. Evan commented that he had liked the fact that it was an easy read and that his favourite section of the story concerned the training camp. Eileen felt that it would be a good book for older children and Brenda said that she was recommending the book to a 15-year old grandson.

Several of our group (even those who had enjoyed it) commented that the story was predictable and there were several suggestions that it was too simple: Evan said that he had hoped for more and Margaret felt that that book was “setting the scene” for something. Brenda felt that we didn’t get enough of what went on in Will’s head.

This was Hilary’s second reading of the book but she felt it was predictable, inconsistent, weak, gently told, “disappointing, should try harder.”

Despite such criticism and faint praise, the book was given an average score of 7.2 from nine readers.

Opinions elsewhere

The blog of The literary sisters  provides a thoughtful review which comments that we only see the world via the main character of Tristan, whose narrative voice is rather sparse and who – initially at least – may seem rather unlikeable.

Andrew Martin’s review in The Guardian describes the book as a fable dealing with big emotions. However, he isn’t won over, saying that “the whole book felt to me numb, generic”.

An Aside, on First Impressions 

Jill didn’t attend the meeting but her apologies illustrated how strong first impressions can be:

I’m sorry but I won’t be joining you. I haven’t read the book. I tried to drum up enthusiasm for it but wasn’t able to. It’s irrational but I didn’t like the title, I didn’t like the cover, I didn’t want to read it. I didn’t.


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