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Is it true that behaviors we dislike in others are the very ones we detest in ourselves? The characters in John Boyne’s The Absolutist (Other Press) would vehemently deny this. But actions speak louder than lies in this atmospheric novel that tracks a handful of guilt-ridden and self-questioning characters from the trenches of World War I to the poseur-filled publishing houses of Thatcher-era London.
The main cast members in this morality play are two young recruits who meet in the barracks bunkhouse and gingerly navigate their way through what passes for affection. This is 1916, a time when the love that dare not speak its name raised eyebrows on some, expectations in others.
The narrative begins in medias res as sole survivor of his regiment Tristan Sadler is on his way in 1919 to return a package of letters to Marian, the sister of his beloved late comrade Will Bancroft. Shaky, uncertain and secretive is this Tristan, arriving at his overnight digs to find the panicked landlord applying disinfectant to a room where some man-to-man “scandal” had taken place the night before. (Boyne is a master of the tease. He spins out a series of cliffhangers, secrets and surprises that would turn any plot summary here into one big “spoiler alert.”)
Against the wartime canvas, Boyne raises provocative questions about guilt, loyalty and courage. How moral is it to battle for foreigners’ rights abroad while inequalities “we accept without question” still rule at home? How courageous can a man be if he fights for king and country but lives his whole life pretending to be something he’s not? If love is all that matters, as the characters continually aver, why can they never achieve it in any satisfying way?
Every intimacy is followed by denial and reproach; shunning and bullying rule. From the narrator’s father who turns him out of the house after a teenage sexual transgression, to the English village that unites in boycotting the grocer whose son has questionable romantic alliances. Submit to conformity, these incidents preach, and remember that individual principles mean little in a mob-mentality universe.
Boyne has, through nine novels, established a reputation as an accomplished stylist. And indeed it is style that buoys this book along beautifully through a sometimes predictable plot. His diction alone defines an early 20th-century mise-en-scène that no amount of description could have bettered. (Tough drill sergeants decry actions that are “abhorrent” to them, citing examples that are “not very sporting” or “salubrious.” Imagine an officer speaking so today.)
Tiny details of character convey volumes here. Forgetting his birthday reminds us how distanced Tristan has become from family life. His purchase of good notepaper and fountain pen indicates the seriousness of his correspondence. Mrs. Bancroft serves tea “in fine china cups with painfully small handles.” And the orderly Bancroft vicarage offers clipped hedges and tended paths, idyllic in contrast with the flat above the butcher’s shop where Tristan was raised.
The “absolutist” of the title, we’re told, not only conscientiously objects to fighting but also refuses to perform any duties that would advance the war effort. Courageous? Cowardly? Everyone in the book has his own answer, and the vicar’s wife resignedly reminds us, “We each handle adversity in our own way, don’t we?” Marian marries a belligerent suitor and justifies her unwise decision: “He was there and I wanted someone to take care of me at that moment.” Similarly, after his and Tristan’s relationship moves from the collegial to the carnal, Will opts for comfort over love. “Let’s just act as if none of it ever happened,” he suggests. “Can we just be friends when we’re lonely and soldiers the rest of the time?” Denial, it seems, his choice of disinfectant.
This voice and tone of an earlier time layered over a constant simmer of sexual suggestion bring to mind the masterful literary edging of Denton Welch. Every gesture comes cloaked in ultra-reserve, trailing an air of mystery, an incendiary subtext. (It’s not until the novel’s 1979 coda that the language assumes a catty and superficial gloss, making us long for the lost politesse of the past.)
Hawthorne thought The Scarlet Letter would make a wonderful opera. I feel the same way about The Absolutist, structured as it is with set pieces, individual arias, combative duets, trios and quartets. Emotions smolder silently for much of the time in this deep and satisfying novel, but when they finally erupt, they do so with an intensity well suited to the grand orchestral stage. Verdi would love it.
By John Boyne
Paperback, 9781590515525, 320 pp.