A masterfully told tale of passion, jealousy, heroism, and betrayal set in the gruesome trenches of World War I.
It is September 1919: 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 Tristan 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 tale of passion, jealousy, heroism, and betrayal set in one of the most gruesome trenches of France during World War I. This novel will keep readers on the edge of their seats until its most extraordinary and unexpected conclusion, and will stay with them long after they’ve turned the last page.
|Publisher:||Other Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
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By John Boyne
Other PressCopyright © 2012 John Boyne
All right reserved.
“Keep it together, Tristan,” he tells me quietly, putting a hand around my shoulder as his eyes search to make and hold a connection with my own, his fingers pressing tightly around my flesh, sending a current of electricity through me despite my grief; it’s only the second time he’s touched me since England—the first was when he helped to lift me off the floor of the deluged trench—and the only time he’s spoken to me since the boat.
“Keep it together, yes? For all our sakes.”
I step closer to him and he pats my arm in consolation, leaving his hand there longer than is necessary.
“What did Rigby mean when he said he was sorry to hear about…well, he didn’t finish his sentence.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say, moving forward in my grief to put my head down on his shoulder, and he pulls me to him for a moment, his hand at the back of my head, and I am almost certain that his lips brush the top of my hair but then Turner and Sergeant Clayton come into sight, the loud voice of the latter complaining about some new disaster, and we separate once again. I wipe the tears from my eyes and look at him but he’s turned away and my thoughts return to my oldest friend, dead like so many others. I wonder why in God’s name I ever went to look at Rich, Parks, and Denchley’s bodies when I could have been in my foxhole all this time, grabbing a few minutes’ sleep, and knowing nothing about any of this, nothing about home or Chiswick High Street, my mother, my father, Peter, or the whole bloody lot of them. “
Excerpted from The Absolutist by John Boyne Copyright © 2012 by John Boyne. Excerpted by permission of Other Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
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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.