Book Review | The Absolutist by John Boyne

The First World War is now a century behind us. The last survivors are gone, and the horrors of the conflict are now only accessible through the foggy lens of history. With this temporal distance, it’s easy to forget the sheer magnitude and horror of the conflict. A hundred years seems like a vast gulf in time, an entirely different world. And it is and it isn’t. The boys sent off to die in their millions were just that – boys. They had their own dreams and loves and lives ahead of them.

Tristan Sadler is desperate to fight for his country. Swept up in the fervour of valour and patriotism, with misplaced ideologies about what being sent to the front line means, he lies about his age and signs up at the age of seventeen. His father has disowned him and he doesn’t have much to lose.

During basic training at Aldershot, he meets the enigmatic Will Bancroft. He struggles to hide his burgeoning feelings and the two grow closer in friendship. Will’s attitude to the war is more ambiguous, and he befriends a conscientious objector whose case is being put before a tribunal. Tristan steadfastly holds onto the belief that fighting is what is right, even as he is put through the most physically and emotionally gruelling experience of his life. And that’s before they’ve even departed England.

‘At Aldershot, they weren’t teaching us how to fight, they were training us how to extend our lives for as long as possible. As if we were already dead, but if we learned to shoot straight and to use a bayonet with care and precision then we might at least have a few more days or weeks in us. The barracks were filled with ghosts. Does that make sense? It was as if we died before we left England.’

Before long, they are both headed out to France, to face whatever horrors await.

Boyne doesn’t hold back in the visceral and relentless depravity of life in the trenches, giving an unflinching portrayal of the futility and barbarity of war. Human life is debased to the lowest levels, and one by one members of their platoon meet their fates. Of the pair of them, only one will come home, to live with the consequences of his actions.

The novel forces us to look at the murky spaces between bravery and cowardice, morality and duty. It captures a moment in time and pays homage to the senseless victims of the war. And the emotional impact should be vast – and yet, it isn’t. John Boyne writes beautifully, there’s no doubt about that, but there is a sense of this narrative staying too close to the surface, being too hurried to reach a conclusion. It doesn’t allow the breathing space to develop the characters and their relationships, and there is no space for absolution. Perhaps that’s what I wanted – some kind of absolution.

Book Review | The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

The post-war Irish political and social landscape was one bordering on theocracy: a nation held in the vicelike grip of the Catholic church. And 1940’s Ireland is not a good time to find yourself unmarried, pregnant, and alone on the sprawling streets of Dublin. Catherine Goggin has been banished from her hometown by the village priest, and throws herself at the mercy of fate when she gets on a bus for the capital, with nothing but a few pennies in her pocket. Shortly afterwards, her baby boy is born, and handed over to the care of a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun. And then his story takes the reins.

We meet her son, Cyril, at seven years old. He’s been adopted by Charles and Maude Avery, an unconventional couple with no real interest in parenting, who encourage him to think of his place in the family as an eighteen-year tenancy. For Cyril, inquisitive, quiet, sensitive, everything changes the day he sees Julian Woodbead at foot of the stairs. He quickly becomes utterly devoted to and obsessed with Julian, realising that his feelings aren’t altogether platonic.

‘But for all that we had, for all the luxury to which we were accustomed, we were both denied love, and this deficiency would be scorched into our future lives like an ill-considered tattoo inscribed on the buttocks after a drunken night out, leading each of us inevitably towards isolation and disaster.’

So there we have the crux of the story: Cyril is growing up in a society that not only abhors, but out rightly criminalises his feelings. The freedom to love who he wants is not a freedom that he is afforded, and the struggle to conceal something so fundamental to his identity causes a seismic rupture in his sense of self and belonging.

‘It was a difficult time to be Irish, a difficult time to be twenty-one years of age and a difficult time to be a man who was attracted to other men. To be all three simultaneously required a level of subterfuge and guile that felt contrary to my nature.’

It’s an odyssey through seven decades of a life, and Boyne keeps us enthralled throughout. The novel jumps forward in seven-year increments, as Cyril grows up and attempts to find his place in the world – a journey that takes him from Dublin to cosmopolitan Amsterdam, a New York City in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, and then finally back home, to a city that has irrevocably changed.

But this was Dublin, the nation’s capital. The place of my birth and a city I loved at the heart of a country I loathed.

This book is both expansive and profound. It is achingly funny and achingly sad. John Boyne’s ability to pepper bleakness with levity and humour is so deftly handled that one page had me laughing out loud whilst on the next I had tears streaming down my face.

‘I’m twenty-eight!’ I said, appalled and insulted.

‘Wow,’ he said, laughing. ‘That is so ancient. You’re like a dinosaur. I prefer stories about things that really happened. And the war really happened, didn’t it, so I want to know about it. Did you fight in the war, Mr Avery?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘On account that I was born a few months after it ended.’

‘I find that very hard to believe,’ said Jonathan, shaking his head. ‘You look so old that if you said you’d fought in the First World War, I wouldn’t have fallen off my seat in surprise!’

The characters are brilliant, three-dimensional, complex beings who are everything in this novel. Parts of the story are fantastical – an excess of tragic events, many a wild coincidence – but this is a story, and it’s what makes this story so absorbing and sprawling and epic – so moving, funny, tender and sad. It makes us look critically at how far society has come in acceptance of perceived difference, and how far we still have left to go. Ultimately, it’s about our very human longing for acceptance, belonging, and happiness.