In the year 1916, Tristan Sadler volunteers for military service on behalf of Britain, fighting the Great War that will define the future of the world. A native Londoner, Tristan is 17 years old upon enlisting, a very tender age to be pressed into violent, close combat with rifle and bayonet. Men’s souls are buried alive in the trenches of France. None really believe they will survive. Cities and towns across Europe have been demolished, deposed of armies of young men as families ponder meanings and attempt to mend damaged souls who do return. This is the price we pay for our protection and freedom: the young. We know it. But can we be sure it is worth it, even in the Great War? For some men and their families, the true price still stands unrecognized.
"This is great modern literature with fantastic artistic appeal and superb writing, a story of duty, honor, love, high passion and integrity.... Anyone with an interest in great fiction, riveting war stories, historical fiction or modern literature will love THE ABSOLUTIST --- one of my absolute favorite books of the year."
At the Aldershot military barracks, Tristan had been deemed “fit for battle” by his fierce, obsessively violent sergeant. Yet emotionally, he was little more a child facing the brutality and inescapability of war. He’d been forced into this position after his parents disowned him unjustly, without comprehending that, in signing up, he’d relinquished both body and soul to his own government, probably permanently. Stripped of individuality or philosophies that the military deems distasteful, Tristan becomes a consummate soldier, at least publicly --- steadfast, patriotic, athletic, masculine, willing to kill when asked to, and seeming to relish in it. But once thrown into the mix of daily battle, he becomes greatly disillusioned.
Somehow Tristan’s war experiences do stand out more than others simply because he’s known a different brand of suffering, one that is more personal and carries the mark of understanding --- a belief in something good, something bigger than one person, the ability to love. The discovery of a friend who truly respects his fellow man helps Tristan understand (eventually) that there are other philosophies worth considering, that violence is not the only answer, that men exist who are simply blessed with more compassion, decency, thoughtfulness and integrity. Not unexpectedly, these are the same souls who wonder what they’re doing out there. Many decide not to fight at all, although Tristan is not one of them.
For controversial philosophies, young soldiers were branded cowards in the first World War and called “feather men,” the first “feather man” in Tristan’s regiment being a religious fellow named Arthur Wolf --- a soldier not much older than him but more than willing to face everyday persecution. Wolf’s repeated formal petitions for release from military service are denied as he is condemned by his regiment, with only a few men considering his reasons for protest logically (and only secretly in the beginning, for fear of retribution). Wolf is accused by his seargent of standing by as good men die, of being a quitter and runaway, a faithless traitor to his country and regiment. But ironically, Wolf never does run away, presents himself with fortitude, and bravely faces the combined might and threat of the British military.
For standing up for what he believes in, Wolf will pay a heavy price, and following his death, the charge is taken up by Will Bancroft, one of Wolf’s bunkmates and Tristan’s closest friend. Will’s unique insights and perspectives on life give him good reasons to defend Wolf (and others), even in death. Knowing full well that he will be labeled a “feather man” in turn and probably suffer a similar fate, Will “fights the good fight” as the war drags on. Tristan’s part in this tale is lovely, achingly sad, tender, beautiful and quite haunting. This is an unforgettable, timeless love story and a very unique war story.
In a sense, THE ABSOLUTIST is about a philosophical revolution not unlike that of the ’60s, full of progressive ideas but also sad ironies that still make sense today (perhaps more than ever.) This is great modern literature with fantastic artistic appeal and superb writing, a story of duty, honor, love, high passion and integrity. Of course, John Boyne is an incredible, award-winning, bestselling author of considerable fame and talent. Anyone with an interest in great fiction, riveting war stories, historical fiction or modern literature will love THE ABSOLUTIST --- one of my absolute favorite books of the year.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on August 10, 2012