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.