Review of THE ABSOLUTIST by John Boyne

From Other Press, New York:

“The Absolutist is a novel that examines the events of the Great War from the perspective of two young privates, both struggling with the complexity of their emotions and the confusion of their friendship.”

I received a copy of this book as part of my participation in Book Club hosted by Devourer of Books and Linus’ Blanket.  Although I must have read a description of it at some point, I’d forgotten it by the time I started the book, and the title didn’t give me any clues, so I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.  The opening sections of the book tease:  you learn it’s from the point of view of an older man looking back on events of his youth who drops phrases that hint of what’s to come, “aware of the mess that I had left behind me and embarrassed by it.” (p 13)
I have conflicting feelings about this book.
Although the subject matter is painful:  trench warfare in WWI intertwined with a homosexual love affair that is hampered at every turn, I was also infuriated and lost patience with the stiff-upper-lip-hold-in-the-emotions British characters.
And although I wasn’t particularly looking forward to reading it every night as it is so emotionally unpleasant, I did find myself haunted by the main character and his stories, so full of palpable shame, self-loathing and guilt (the mystery of what’s behind his shame is dealt out in tiny tiny bits).
I think I would recommend this book – but not in the summer, and not in a time when you might be distressed about the state of the world.   It takes a hard look at some of the nastiest elements of human nature, without a great deal of hope attached.  Perhaps one just has to be prepared for that.
Such irony to me that Boyne’s character Sadler finds such solace and escape in books, the works of writers,

“such as Jack London, who offered their readers such a respite from the miserable horror of existence that their books were like gifts from the gods.” (p.114)

When this book puts us boots-deep in the horrors, with little hope of getting out.

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