Book 36: The Absolutist – John Boyne

Where to begin…seriously.  I finished this novel Monday night after a whirlwind read—I could not put it down.  I stumbled across this novel on Net Galley and requested a copy from the publisher and I am incredibly glad I did!  The following is my honest response and the views/opinions are my own. I did not receive compensation to review the novel.

I’ve divided my response into three parts: my response to the novel, a brief comparison and my (rambling) thoughts and questions to those who have also read the novel.  If you have any desire to read the novel (WHICH YOU SHOULD ALL BE!), don’t read part three.  I’ll try not to say explicitly, but it may give some parts away. Sorry it’s such a long post, but it’s such a good book!  I will definitely have to re-read it as I didn’t come close to discussing everything I wanted to discuss!

My Response to The Absolutist
WHOA…for once, it is fairly simple to describe my feelings about a novel I knew nothing about going in: I fell in love.  The overall story is incredibly gut-wrenching and heartbreaking by the ending, but you have to fall in love with it and the characters (even those you want to hate) because of the story and Boyne’s writing. I have never read Boyne, but have seen The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

The Absolutist is a love story, whether it’s unrequited love I haven’t decided.  If you have read the book see Part 3 and then leave a comment or shoot me an email.  I really want to know what others think on that point!

This is every man’s story from World War I, the atrocities and heinous acts they witnessed (and even committed), but perhaps most importantly, this is the story of those who were lost before the war started, those classified as deviants, misfits, even criminals, not for some heinous act but because of who they loved.  Tristan and Will’s story is their story (and I will be cliché and say, one that continues today).

Not only does Boyne write characters you love (and love to hate) he writes scenes which pull at the essence of your humanity.  I can’t even provide examples because I think you should read this novel.  From the descriptions of the war-torn bodies to the tics of the survivors and myriad conversations between characters, Boyne writes in such a way that you’re not reading, but living and feeling the story and the action as it happens.

I thoroughly enjoyed the structure of the novel and can only imagine reading a finished copy will make it better. (There were some formatting issues, but as this is a Net Galley, I wasn’t too bothered and expected worse.)  Through the flashbacks and the triggers I felt as if I was in Tristan’s mind.  Marian was extremely well written and I viewed her as the person of the future, how people would be at least until WWII came around.

The Absolutist and At Swim, Two Boys
As I read The Absolutist I could not help but compare it to At Swim, Two Boys.  If you don’t know, the title of my blog comes from At Swim, Two Boys and it is one of my all time favorite novels, which is interesting because I don’t like stories set in war times in general, but I feel as if that might be changing.  There are striking similarities between the novels AND the authors which I found fascinating and this only skims the surface.

About the authors: both John Boyne and Jaime O’Neill are Irish;  they’ve both lived (or still live) in London; both are gay authors whose subject isn’t necessarily LGBT focused, but has major LGBT impact for individuals (gay men in particular).

About the stories: both stories occur within five years of each other; both are at a time of upheaval (At Swim, Two Boys is about the 1916 Easter Rising);  both stories feature young men coming to terms with their sexuality, their religion and their future; both are love stories that don’t have happy endings, but l leave the reader desperately hoping and imagining possible futures;  and both touch the reader (or at least me) in an elemental way, in a deeper sense than many novels with happier/cleaner cut stories and endings.

The novels are as much about what isn’t there as what is.  I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Jim and Doyler’s story occurred during WWI rather than the Easter Rising and I can’t help but wonder if Will and Tristan met 30 years later how things would have turned out. Or if either ending was different…

Recommendation: READ IT. Buy a copy, share it, buy another one. (Amazon Associates Link.) I will definitely purchase a copy to keep on my ‘forever-shelf.’  Bottom line, if you enjoyed The Absolutist and can handle reading a tome check out O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys (he’s often been compared to Joyce for his stream of consciousness).  

Opening Line: “Seated opposite me in the railway carriage, the elderly lady in the fox-fur shawl was recalling some of the murders that she committed over the years.”

Closing Line: “There will be outrage and disgust and people will turn on me at the last, they will hate me, my reputation will forever be destroyed, my punishment earned, self-inflicted like this gunshot wound, and the world will finally know that I was the greatest feather man of them all.” (Whited out.)

THERE ARE SPOILERS AFTER THIS. (AND MAYBE IN THE COMMENTS TOO!)

The UK cover – Terrie from Other Press kindly pointed out I had this instead of the US cover. (I like both.)

The One Outstanding Question
To those of you that read the novel I have a question and hopefully it’s not too round-about.  If it is, feel free to contact me (via the comment form or by email).  I’m trying not to reveal too much about the ending in case someone who wants to read it accidentally scrolls this far down.  So here goes.

When Tristan tells his story to Marian we ultimately find out what happens to Will.  I knew it was coming, but it was still painful to read—especially the scene in solitary confinement.  My question is this: Do you think Will was telling the truth or was he lying to protect Tristan?  Was he telling what he actually felt or was he masking everything for Tristan’s sake, to shelter Tristan from the life he would leave if the (perceived) love of his life died?

Clearly the life Tristan did lead wasn’t ideal, because of his actions, but that raises a second question.  Was Tristan’s motive of hate or of love?  Was it the final act of vengeance of a spurned lover or the mercy stone of a soul mate?

I’m sure we all have our own opinion, but I’m going to say I believe Will did it in an effort to save Tristan’s heartache; to force him to believe there was never anything there and hopefully one day move on with his life (think about how they describe Will’s reaction to seeing Tristan).  I’m less positive on Tristan’s motive, but I’m going to also say it was love, that if it had to happen, he wanted to do it.

What do you think?! I’m honestly desperate to know.

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24 thoughts on “Book 36: The Absolutist – John Boyne

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    • Way to tease me! I saw your reply in my email and thought – ‘Oh Good someone’s going to have something to say!’ and then I saw you were emailing and I was like OH NO! (But still more YAY than oh no.)

  2. I have read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and I did enjoy it and have wanted to read another of Boyne’s. This one sounds really good and I’ve been looking forward to your review since I saw you reading it on Goodreads.

  3. FINALLY got to read your review. I had been looking forward to it! This was such a wonderful book, and it was fun kind of reading along with you on Goodreads! I feel like I should email you with my thoughts on your questions… as there is no way to not be too spoilery….

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  5. No one in the book club discussion seems to agree with our thoughts about Will and why he acted the way he did in confinement. You should head over there and check it out–feel free to join in the discussion.

    • I’ll definitely have to check it out. Without having read any of it, my first response is that it’s sad people can’t imagine an ending that that’s tragic from something so beautiful.

  6. It’s 3:15 a.m., and because I *need* to talk about this book, I was searching for reviews. As to your questions, Will out of love, Tristan out of hate/love, not mercy. That last word…broke my heart.

    Between this and Code Name Verity, my 2 favorites thus far this year, I never would have expected war novels to impact me this way. Unlike some, I really enjoy them, but they usually aren’t my favorite. I had no clue what this one was about going into it, so the major theme here was a really nice surprise.

    • Thanks for the comment! There’s been a lively discussion on Heather Book Group blog (commented also on this piece) about it. I agree with you about war novels. I really have never been a fan of them, but when you turn them into a tortured love story like this you sort of just accept the war as a setting/background and don’t worry about it as much as you do the individuals.

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  8. I just finished The Absolutist and, like you, I feel it’s one of the best books I have read in years. But, unlike you, I don’t see this as a love story. The only love that was there was only briefly at the beginning and only a love between two friends. Tristan is a great character, but unfortunately an unrealiable narrator. He wants to believe something that doesn’t exist – first with Peter and then with Will. Will is someone full of convictions whereas Tristan has none – merely going through the motions of life (Boyne portrays this by giving Tristan a twitch – a reminder that he is still alive). When Will meets Wolf (somone who shares similar convictions and principles) the friendship with Tristan is basically over. Once some of the horrors of war (before and after they go to France) materialize Will needs something and, knowing what Tristan wants, he sleeps with him, but it’s more for comfort (or to escape the maddness of their surroundings) than love. Tristan can’t accept this. He cannot accept the fact that in insane situations people do things they normally wouldn’t do. Even when the possibility of saving the person he supposedly loves arrives he cannot do it – he can’t allow himself to be involved. Will doesn’t tell him off in the tent to save his feelings – he tells him off with the hopes that Tristan will finally come out of his fantasy world and see the truth. As he states at the end of the book, Tristan is the biggest coward of them all. What the book really is about is the brutality of war and the insanity of sending basically children into a nightmare – one in which they’re not truly equipped to cope. The difference between the characters in At Swim Two Boys and The Absolutist is that the characters in ASTB were in love and had to find a way to come to terms with that love. The characters in The Absolutist had to come to terms with a reality of a different sort. All of that said, The Absolutist was a hauntingly beautiful book that raises questions that are not easily answered.

    • Thanks for stopping by and for the comment!

      I can see what you’re saying, but I think that’s why this book is so great! I still see it as a love story. You’ve provided a lot of answers, and of course situational homosexuality does exist and I definitely didn’t do justice to the horrors of the war, but I still struggle not to think of it as a love story because of the description of Will’s response at the end. I partially agree with you on Will trying to wake Tristan up, but as I said I said in my review I believe it was to protect him – to wake him up to the reality that they wouldn’t be together even after the war because of society.

      This is, of course, all taken with a grain of salt, that Tristan is an unreliable narrator, but that’s one of the things that leaves the story up to so many interpretations.

      And you are absolutely correct about At Swim, Two Boys but again I would point out that they were younger and perhaps more malleable. I could go into a lot of hypotheticals about the story taking place a few years later, about one (or both) of them having a bad experience with love, etc.

      Thanks again for the comment, you’ve definitely given me more to think about.

  9. I just finished reading the book and I can’t believe in it. This book is great. However I feel so sad on the way things went fot Tristan. But let me answer to your questions as the way I see it.

    I believe that Will wasn’t read for what he was feeling. He was just a boy 3 months earlier, and suddenly he sees a world the he never thought about it. He had to fight with his sexuality, his convictions and learn fast how to survive in a war, too much for someone so young. So I believe that even him wasn’t aware of what he was saying. He knew he was going to die and maybe he’s felt betrayed by Tristan refusal to cooperate with him to charge Milton.

    About Tristan act I believe it was a pure rage state. Nothing was easy for him too. His parents wasn’t worried about him, he was lonely, his “best” friend didn’t gave a second thought about what happend and made his life a hell. Whe he mets someone who was careful about him, enjoyed to stay close to him, of course that this person would be his world. He didn’t gave a damn to that war, because he knews the world rejected him, so he rejected the world. In the end Will’s confession was something to great for him too bear and he just got out of control. But I do not blame his behavior, it wasn’t only will, but it was for everything he was trough until that moment.

    • Thanks for stopping by and for the comment! I can definitely see what you’re saying, but I have to think that both of their lack of maturity has to be taken into account as well as their loss of innocence by the end of the war/novel.

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  11. I couldn’t believe my senses while readining The Absolutist. I radomly picked this book for something to read and was amazed at the beautifully written story. Few contemorary writers have this gift. I could’t put it down and will enjoy it as a re-read. I just started Mutiny on the Bounty and was taken in by the first few paragraphs. I’m looking forward to reading all his books. Thank you John Boyne!

    • I whole-heartedly agree. I’ve heard rumors there may be a film adaptation of this novel, but I haven’t done any research into it to find out if they are true or not. It could be incredibly beautiful or incredibly horrible depending on who they can get to direct it. I really should check out more of his works.

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