It is September 1919, and twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver a package of letters to the sister of Will Bancroft, the man he fought alongside during the Great War.
But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan’s visit. He can no longer keep a secret and has finally found the courage to unburden himself of it. As he recounts the horrific details of what to him became a senseless war, he also speaks of his friendship with Will–from their first meeting on the training grounds at Aldershot to their farewell in the trenches of northern France. The intensity of their bond brought Tristan happiness and self-discovery as well as confusion and unbearable pain.
The Absolutist is a masterful, unforgettable tale of passion, jealousy, heroism, and betrayal set in one of the most gruesome trenches of France during World War I.
|Publisher:||Other Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.44(w) x 8.49(h) x 0.96(d)|
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Read an Excerpt
Norwich, 15–16 September 1919
Seated opposite me in the railway carriage, the elderly lady in the fox-fur shawl was recalling some of the murders that she had committed over the years. “There was the vicar in Leeds,” she said, smiling a little as she tapped her lower lip with her index finger. “And the spinster from Hartlepool whose tragic secret was to prove her undoing. The actress from London, of course, who took up with her sister’s husband just after his return from the Crimea. She was a flighty piece so no one could blame me for that. But the maid-of-all-work in Connaught Square, I rather regretted killing her. She was a hard-working girl of good Northern stock, who perhaps didn’t deserve such a brutal ending.”
“That was one of my favourites,” I replied. “If you ask me, she got what was coming to her. She read letters that were not hers to read.”
“I know you, don’t I?” she asked, sitting forward now, narrowing her eyes as she examined my face for familiar signs. A sharp combination of lavender and face cream, her mouth viscous with blood-red lipstick. “I’ve seen you somewhere before.”
“I work for Mr. Pynton at the Whisby Press,” I told her. “My name’s Tristan Sadler. We met at a literary lunch a few months ago.” I extended my hand and she stared at it for a moment, as if unsure what was expected of her, before shaking it carefully, her fingers never quite closing on my own. “You gave a talk on untraceable poisons,” I added.
“Yes, I remember it now,” she said, nodding quickly. “You had five books that wanted signing. I was struck by your enthusiasm.” I smiled, flattered that she recalled me at all. “I’m a great admirer,” I said, and she inclined her head graciously, a movement that must have been honed over thirty years of receiving praise from her readers. “As is Mr. Pynton. He’s talked several times about trying to lure you over to our house.”
“Yes, I know Pynton,” she replied with a shudder. “Vile little man. Terrible halitosis. I wonder that you can bear to be near him. I can see why he employed you, though.”
I raised an eyebrow, confused, and she offered me a half-smile.
“Pynton likes to be surrounded by beautiful things,” she explained. “You must have seen it in his taste for artwork and those ornate couches that look as though they belong in the Paris atelier of some fashion designer. You remind me of his last assistant, the scandalous one. But no, there’s no chance, I’m afraid. I’ve been with my publisher for over thirty years and I’m perfectly happy where I am.”
She sat back, her expression turning to ice, and I knew that I had disgraced myself, turning what had been a pleasant exchange into a potential business transaction. I looked out of the window, embarrassed. Glancing at my watch, I saw that we were running about an hour later than planned and now the train had stopped again without explanation.
“This is exactly why I never go up to town any more,” she declared abruptly as she struggled to open the window, for the carriage had begun to grow stuffy. “You simply cannot rely on the railways to bring you home again.”
“Here, let me help you with that, missus,” said the young man who had been sitting next to her, speaking in whispered, flirtatious tones to the girl next to me since we departed Liverpool Street. He stood and leaned forward, a breeze of perspiration, and gave the window a hefty pull. It opened with a jolt, allowing a rush of warm air and engine-steam to spill inside.
“My Bill’s a dab hand with machinery,” said the young woman, giggling with pride.
“Leave it out, Margie,” he said, smiling only a little as he sat down.
“He fixed engines during the war, didn’t you, Bill?”
“I said leave it out, Margie,” he repeated, colder now, and as he caught my eye we considered each other for a moment before looking away.
“It was just a window, dear,” sniffed the lady-novelist with impeccable timing.
It struck me how it had taken over an hour for our three parties even to acknowledge each other’s presence. It reminded me of the story of the two Englishmen, left alone on a deserted island together for five years after a shipwreck, who never exchanged a single word of conversation as they had never been properly introduced.
Twenty minutes later, our train shifted into motion and we were on our way, finally arriving in Norwich more than an hour and a half behind schedule. The young couple disembarked first, a flurry of hysterical impatience and rush-me-to-our-room giggles, and I helped the writer with her suitcase.
“You’re very kind,” she remarked in a distracted fashion as she scanned the platform. “My driver should be here somewhere to help me the rest of the way.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you,” I said, not trying for another handshake but offering an awkward nod of the head instead, as if she were the Queen and I a loyal subject. “I hope I didn’t embarrass you earlier. I only meant that Mr. Pynton wishes we had writers of your calibre on our list.”
She smiled at this—I am relevant, said her expression, I matter—and then she was gone, uniformed driver in tow. But I remained where I was, surrounded by people rushing to and from their platforms, lost within their number, quite alone in the busy railway station.
I emerged from the great stone walls of Thorpe Station into an unexpectedly bright afternoon, and found that the street where my lodgings were located, Recorder Road, was only a short walk away. Upon arriving, however, I was disappointed to find that my room was not quite ready.
“Oh dear,” said the landlady, a thin woman with a pale, scratchy complexion. She was trembling, I noticed, although it was not cold, and wringing her hands nervously. She was tall, too. The type of woman who stands out in a crowd for her unexpected stature. “I’m afraid we owe you an apology, Mr. Sadler. We’ve been at sixes and sevens all day. I don’t quite know how to explain what’s happened.”
“I did write, Mrs. Cantwell,” I said, trying to soften the note of irritation that was creeping into my tone. “I said I would be here shortly after five. And it’s gone six now.” I nodded in the direction of the grandfather clock that stood in the corner behind her desk. “I don’t mean to be awkward, but—”
“You’re not being awkward at all, sir,” she replied quickly. “The room should have been ready for you hours ago, only . . .” She trailed off and her forehead wrinkled into a series of deep grooves as she bit her lip and turned away; she seemed unable to look me in the eye. “We had a bit of unpleasantness this morning, Mr. Sadler, that’s the truth of it. In your room. Or what was to be your room, that is. You probably won’t want it now. I know I shouldn’t. I don’t know what I’ll do with it, honestly I don’t. It’s not as if I can afford to leave it unlet.”
Her agitation was obvious, and despite my mind being more or less focused on my plans for the following day, I was concerned for her and was about to ask whether there was anything I could do to help when a door opened behind her and she spun around. A boy of about seventeen appeared, whom I took to be her son: he had a look of her around the eyes and mouth, although his complexion was worse, scarred as he was by the acne of his age. He stopped short, taking me in for a moment, before turning to his mother in frustration.
“I told you to call me when the gentleman arrived, didn’t I?” he said, glaring at her.
“But he’s only just arrived this minute, David,” she protested. “It’s true,” I said, feeling a curious urge to jump to her defence. “I did.”
“But you didn’t call me,” he insisted to his mother. “What have you told him, anyway?”
“I haven’t told him anything yet,” she said, turning back to me with an expression that suggested she might cry if she was bullied any longer. “I didn’t know what to say.”
“I do apologize, Mr. Sadler,” he said, turning to me now with a complicit smile, as if to imply that he and I were of a type who understood that nothing would go right in the world if we did not take it out of the hands of women and look after it ourselves. “I had hoped to be here to greet you myself. I asked Ma to tell me the moment you arrived. We expected you earlier, I think.”
“Yes,” I said, explaining about the unreliable train. “But really, I am rather tired and hoped to go straight to my room.” “Of course, sir,” he said, swallowing a little and staring down at the reception desk as if his entire future were mapped out in the wood; here in the grain was the girl he would marry, here the children they would have, here the lifetime of bickering misery they would inflict upon each other. His mother touched him lightly on the arm and whispered something in his ear, and he shook his head quickly and hissed at her to stay quiet. “It’s a mess, the whole thing,” he said, raising his voice suddenly as he returned his attention to me. “You were to stay in number four, you see. But I’m afraid number four is indisposed right now.”
“Well, couldn’t I stay in one of the other rooms, then?” I asked.
“Oh no, sir,” he replied, shaking his head. “No, they’re all taken, I’m afraid. You were down for number four. But it’s not ready, that’s the problem. If you could just give us a little extra time to prepare it.”
He stepped out from behind the desk now and I got a better look at him. Although he was only a few years younger than me, his appearance suggested a child play-acting as an adult. He wore a pair of man’s trousers, a little too long for him, so rolled and pinned in the leg to compensate, and a shirt, tie and waistcoat combination that would not have seemed out of place on a much older man. The beginnings of a moustache were teased into a fearful line across his upper lip, and for a moment I couldn’t decide whether in fact it was a moustache at all or simply a dirty smudge overlooked by the morning’s facecloth. Despite his attempts to look older, his youth and inexperience were obvious. He could not have been out there with the rest of us, of that I felt certain.
“David Cantwell,” he said after a moment, extending his hand towards me.
“It’s not right, David,” said Mrs. Cantwell, blushing furiously. “The gentleman will have to stay somewhere else tonight.”
“And where is he to stay, then?” asked the boy, turning on her, his voice raised, a sense of injustice careering through his tone. “You know everywhere’s full up. So where should I send him, because I certainly don’t know. To Wilson’s? Full! To Dempsey’s? Full! To Rutherford’s? Full! We have an obligation, Ma. We have an obligation to Mr. Sadler and we must meet our obligations or else we disgrace ourselves, and hasn’t there been enough of that for one day?”
I was startled by the suddenness of his aggression and had an idea of what life might be like in the boarding house for this pair of mismatched souls. A boy and his mother, alone together since he was a child, for her husband, I decided, had been killed in an accident involving a threshing machine years before. The boy was too young to remember his father, of course, but worshipped him nevertheless and had never quite forgiven his mother for forcing the poor man out to work every hour that God sent. And then the war had come and he’d been too young to fight. He’d gone to enlist and they’d laughed at him. They’d called him a brave boy and told him to come back in a few years’ time when he had some hair on his chest, if the godforsaken thing wasn’t over already, and they’d see about him then. And he’d marched back to his mother and despised her for the relief on her face when he told her that he was going nowhere, not yet, anyway.
Even then, I would imagine scenarios like this all the time, searching in the undergrowth of my plots for tangled circumstances.
What People are Saying About This
"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." -Library Journal Starred Review
I became an admirer of John Boyne's writing with his first novel, The Thief of Time. His latest, The Absolutist, is a novel of immeasurable sadness, in a league with Graham Greene's The End of the Affair and a no less masterful handling of the first-person narrative voice than Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table. Boyne is very, very good at portraying the destructive power of a painfully kept secret — not to mention the damage done by the self-recriminations (and other condemnations) that are released when that secret is revealed. The Absolutist is one of those great stories that is not what it first seems, though what the story appears to be is a powerful enough premise to begin any novel: a young soldier, returning from World War One, is traveling from London to Norwich to deliver some letters to the grieving sister of a fallen comrade. We presume that the worst of what has happened is what we already know or have imagined of those trenches in northern France. (Boyne is also very, very good at historical fiction; The Absolutist begins in September 1919. ) But the young soldier, who is twenty-one, has something to confess; this is a forbidden love story, a gay love story, but one with a terrible twist...
— John Irving
Reading Group Guide
1. When Tristan first enters the Cantwell Inn, Mrs. Cantwell's son, David, presents the question of morality and describes the incident that happens in room four as "a personal indiscretion". Which characters does Boyne present as judges of morality in The Absolutist? How does Tristan's complete avoidance of their judgments define his character both negatively and positively?
2. In solitary confinement, Will makes it clear to Tristan what he dislikes about him and what makes them different. Tristan's silent compliance with the injustice of the military system and his insistence that their intimate moments hold some greater meaning come to repulse Will. Yet when Will removes his blindfold, his reaction suggests a kind of heartbreak. How do you read Will's reaction? Do you find any similarities between the two men?
3. In the novel's carefully crafted structure, relationships and events build upon one another to culminate in an emotionally complex ending. What implications can we draw from Tristan's description of his father as a butcher with "the boning knives, the animal carcasses, the bone saws and rib pullers, the bloodstained overalls" (p. 35)? What parallels are being made and how do they help us understand Tristan's relationship with his father and with violence? Can you think of other symbolic comparisons?
4. Tristan's internal conflicts with his family, with Marian, and with Will build in suspense. By not directly identifying Tristan's sexual orientation until later in the novel, Boyne allows room for a larger question of identity to develop. Consider Marian's position within her family and her community, David's ignorant desire to join the military, and Sergeant Clayton's development into a war fiend. How do these individual situations broaden Boyne's theme of troubled self-identity? Which other characters, struggle with their identity, and in what ways?
5. Tristan shows a particularly insightful ability to read a person's expressions (i.e., "'I do apologize, Mr. Sadler,' [David] said, turning to me now with a complicit smile, as if to imply that he and I were of a type who understood that nothing would go right in the world if we did not take it out of the hands of women and look after it ourselves" [p. 7]). Does Tristan's heightened intuition and sensitivity to other characters redeem his tendency to avoid conflict? What other redeeming characteristics does Tristan possess?
6. Tristan confides to Marian that he never took another lover after Will. This choice does not seem to be solely out of respect for the love he had for Will. Why else might Tristan insist on spending his remaining days alone?
7. In old age, Tristan reveals his plan to commit suicide and leave behind the story he has just told, accepting that this will ruin his reputation and cause him to be considered the greatest feather man of them all. How do you interpret Boyne's final treatment of Tristan's cowardice and self-image?
8. Tristan joins the firing squad on an angry impulse. Later he admits to Marian that he helped murder Will because he couldn't have him. Considering Will's reasons for being disappointed in Tristan, what is the irony of Tristan's action? What is implied when Tristan's own death approaches?
A Q & A with John Boyle
1. What prompted you to write a book about World War I?
I was watching a news report about a town in England that was dedicating a new monument to soldiers who had lost their lives in the Great War. A group of their descendants were there to mark the occasion. But there was a second group present, descendants of young men who had either been shell-shocked in the trenches and desertedand been shot because of itor who had declared themselves conscientious objectors and also been shot by their own side. These young men had never been allowed to live their lives or fulfill their potential, but it was as if they had been entirely forgotten, erased from history. I immediately became interested in the idea of the conscientious objector, how difficult it would have been for someone to have taken on the mantle and how it would have affected his family. I thought there was something very brave about declaring an objection to war in the face of the great task that the rest of society was undertaking and that this in turn could be interesting territory for a novel.
2. What writers inspired you while you were working on this book?
Naturally, I have read a great many writers over the years who have written about the Great War, from Erich Maria Remarque to Pat Barker, but I try to keep influences away from my novels, particularly my historically based novels, as much as I can. I wanted the voices of the two young men at the heart of the storyTristan Sadler and Will Bancroftto sound completely authentic, to have their own voices, characters and opinions, and not be extensions of the characters that I have read about in other novels set during 1914 and 1918.
3. The Absolutist vividly captures the atmosphere of the war and its aftermath. How did you research the setting and go about creating it?
I spent a lot of time at war museumsfor example, the Imperial War Museum in Londonresearching trench warfare and the effect that living in those conditions had on the young men at the time. A lot of this was done through letters: letters written by soldiers at the Front, letters written from their families back to them. In those letters I could identify consistent themes and ideas about warfare that are often missing from the vast amount of nonfiction that is available on the subject. They were also very helpful in delving into the psychology of the soldiers, into learning what their preoccupations were at such difficult moments. Naturally I read about the training grounds and the field operations too, but at some point, however, any novelist writing about the past needs to put all the research to one side and simply rely on his or her imagination.
4. What did you intend for The Absolutist to say about homosexual identity during World War I? Does this theme resonate with contemporary issues?
At the time of the Great War, homosexuality was illegal in England but of course there were as many gay people then as there are today; they simply had no outlet for their desires and a great deal of fear about them being exposed. They could not be honest about who they were; they were doomed to lead lives of solitude and frustration. However, in the intimacy of the trenches, in the horrors of that war, it seemed obvious to me that relationships must have formed at times. Clandestine relationships, of course, but relationships nonetheless. I think this does have a contemporary resonance when there is still debate about gays in the military and the voices on the right wingthose terrified, cowardly, hate-fuelled voices who espouse freedom and then deny everyone the right to experience itare so outspoken with their prejudices. While watching one of the Republican presidential primary debates I saw a soldier in Iraq asking via Skype a question of the candidates. The audience cheered him upon his arrival on screen, then booed and hissed when he revealed his homosexuality. Not one of the candidates offering themselves for the position of Commander-in-Chief had the humanity, the decency or the courage to stand up for that soldier, which, I think, tells you everything you need to know about those men and their ideologies.
5. Do you identify with any of the characters in particular?
I don't think it's a novelist's job to identify with any one particular character. The job is to create characters with whom the readers can engage, in whom they can believe. Naturally there is a little of me in all the characters but it's not always a deliberate act. More often than not, it arrives subconsciously in the fiction. It's always interesting to me when friends tell me that they can hear my voice in particular characters, but I make an effort to create people who I don't fully understand, who only become clear to me as the story develops.
6. The novel deftly moves backward and forward through time, without giving away too much information or spoiling the ending. How did you decide to structure the narrative like this, and was it difficult to achieve?
I've been playing with structure and time since my first novel, The Thief of Time, was published in 2000. I find it very interesting to tell a story in a nonlinear way, to allow later scenes to take place earlier in the novel and then return to earlier points in the story to examine how that moment was arrived at. I found it particularly interesting to do this in The House of Special Purpose, half of which is written “forward in time” and half of which is written “backward in time” so that the two halves of the story meet at the end. In The Absolutist, I thought it was important that the character of Tristan should sound different in the prewar and postwar sections, that his tone would be markedly more somber and distressed after 1918. It was difficult to achieve but that is what rewriting a novel is all about. Regarding the ending of the novel, it becomes clear to the reader early on that Tristan is carrying a great deal of shame and remorse, that something has taken place for which he cannot (and will not) ever forgive himself. I hope when the moment of revelation comes for the reader, it is a surprise.
7. Throughout the novel, Tristan Sandler is forced to make difficult moral choices. How do you feel about the decisions of your main character? Do you think Tristan achieves a kind of redemption for what he chooses to do?
Tristan is a very damaged soul, a man who can never achieve redemption. He carries so much guilt within himself that it entirely overshadows his life. However, the decisions of a character in a novel are not necessarily the same decisions that the author would make. One must create conflict in order to make a character interesting. Sometimes one must create characters who hold completely different opinions than one's own. I wanted to make Tristan as complex as possible so that there would be moments when the reader would sympathize with him, moments when one would despise him and moments where his suffering would evoke empathy.
8. Have you discovered any great books lately?
I haven't “discovered” these books as such but the books I've enjoyed most over recent months include John Irving's powerful novel of sexual outsiders, In One Person, which is not only narrated by a rare figure in American literaturethe bisexual malebut also explores the AIDS crisis that began in the 1980s (and continues today), a subject that also receives scant attention in fiction; Laurent Binet's HHhH, the story of one of the Third Reich's most powerful figures but written in a way that makes the reader question the artifice of the novel form. I was also filled with admiration for Nathan Englander's stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. And Dave Shelton's short novel A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is a complete delight, surreal, funny and moving.
9. What projects are you working on next?
I write fiction for both adults and young readers, and my next novel, which will be published in the States in January 2013, is a children's book, The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket. It's the story of a family who believe that everyone should be the same. They despise difference of any sort, so when their third child, Barnaby, refuses to obey the law of gravity and floats, they are embarrassed by him and send him into exile. It's a novel for young readers about difference, about those who are terrified of difference and those who are willing to embrace it.