John Boyne has a gift for crafting historical tales that hold all the richness and scope of a period while still maintaining a sense of intimacy. The Absolutist might be his most intimate story yet—a journey inside the mind of a man who’s seen the horror of war, and the tale of his quest to somehow find peace in the lonely aftermath.
In the fall of 1919, World War I veteran Tristan Sadler travels from London to Norwich to deliver a package of letters to the sister of Will Bancroft, a soldier Tristan met while training for the war in 1916. Tristan bears the scars of war on his body, but the real reason for his journey is the scars on his heart. The world knows only that Tristan and Will were friends, and how Will officially met his end. But the truth is that Tristan and Will were something more, and what really happened to Will is a secret that cuts Tristan deeper than any war wound.
Many volumes of historical fiction swell to massive length thanks to the author’s penchant for period details and historical info-dumps. Amid other works of its genre, The Absolutist is surprisingly slim. Boyne conveys the period accurately and elegantly, but the characters—specifically Tristan, who narrates—are the stars. This isn’t a novel about WWI; it’s a novel about the unique horror of one man’s experience, and Boyne makes every word count.
By the end, when Tristan’s secrets are revealed, you realize you’ve just encountered something rare in a war novel: a unique vision of the scarred, reluctant warrior trope. You might think you recognize Tristan’s type, but as Boyne unfolds his tale he ensures that you don’t. This is a different kind of journey into the darkness of war, told by a gifted, powerful novelist, and the result is a book with an often staggering emotional punch.