John Boyne is a consummate storyteller, and in his new novel he doesn’t disappoint. You might think there was little more to be said about the First World War, and in many ways you would be right. Everything we have come to expect of the First World War novel is here – the unpreparedness of the young soldiers, the appalling conditions of the trenches and incomprehensible loss of life, the apparent aimlessness of the conflict, the way in which the civilian world moves on and leaves its former soldiers stranded in their traumatic past.
Not only, however, does Boyne make all this anew by the power of his beautifully nuanced and perfectly controlled narrative, he also manages to add a perspective which has hitherto been under-represented in the fiction of the war. He writes about conscientious objectors among enlisted men, the feather men, those who became stretcher bearers with a life expectancy even shorter than an infantryman’s, who endured vicious bullying and persecution from NCOs and did not, like officers, have the protection of rank or education to help them.
First and foremost, however, The Absolutist is not a war story but a love story, and an agonising one at that. I defy anyone who has been involved in a love affair gone bad not to squirm with painful recognition at the cruelties, both intentional and unwitting, the lovers at the centre of this novel inflict on each other. Except that, for most of us, in the world bequeathed us by the men who fought this dreadful war, it isn’t, literally, a matter of life and death.
An outstanding read, very highly recommended.