This award-winning Irish author (The Boy in Striped Pyjamas) has written a most English book. In 1919, young Tristan Sadler, a recovering veteran of World War I, travels by train to Norwich to return some letters to the sister of regiment mate Will Bancroft, who was killed in combat. Readers looking forward to refined conversation over tea as the two lament his death are in for an uncomfortable shock, as alternating lengthy chapters descend into the hell of a war not well remembered now: the mud, lice, and rats in the subterranean trenches, to say nothing of the carnage in meaningless battles. Tristan struggles with huge secrets. One is his homosexuality, which, in early 20th-century fashion, is not named outright. The other is Will's ultimate fate, brought about as the understaffed British troops arguably go mad under the pressures of war. VERDICT A thought-provoking and surprising page-turner that for some readers may recall Ian McEwan's Atonement, another novel with themes of war and recrimination.—Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA
A novel set in the trenches of World War I, one of several by Irish author Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, 2006, etc.) staged amid the 20th century's worst moments. As the story opens, Tristan Sadler, who has just turned 21, is in the countryside north of London, looking to deliver a packet of letters from a wartime friend, Will Bancroft, to Will's sister. Sadler is at once shattered and defiant: He has survived the horrors of the Western Front, one of just two boys--and boys most of them were--in his basic training unit to make it out alive. As for the rest: Well, Boyne honors convention by giving each soldier a turn in the spotlight, sometimes briefly, sometimes for symbolic purposes. One is killed off fairly early on in the proceedings, but not before he has had the chance to trouble the unit with doubts about just what this war among royal cousins is all about. In time, the seditious spirit will spread to Will, who, for complex and subtle reasons, has decided to become an "absolutist"--that is, to have absolutely no part in the war effort, not even as a stretcher bearer. That's the kind of thing that can get a fellow in trouble in the king's army--and so, too, the forbidden love that Will and Tristan share. If Will is an absolutist, then Tristan is a situationist; when Will asks him whether he has any principles, he replies, "No. ... People, perhaps. But not principles. What good are they?" Some of the key moments of the book--notably an encounter with a frightened German soldier--are very effective.