It is always shocking to be reminded that the majority of those sent to war are boys. The Absolutist, by John Boyne, brings this home with a poignant telling of the cruelties that soldiers wreak upon each other; not just against their enemies but also within their own ranks.
Tristan returns from the Great War to peace-time England. He is about to turn twenty one but he has already suffered and seen horrors over his four years on the battlefields of France. It has been long enough time to consider him as a man. And long enough time to acquire demons that haunt him.
Tristan’s story spans memories of his childhood through to the time immediately after the war. It is made clear that he has long been troubled, having been shunned by his family before embarking on military training at Aldershot. His travails continue during his time in the trenches of the Somme where he is impelled into a world gone mad, and where savagery reigns.
In such a situation, the concept of not doing your duty to King and Country, namely ‘going over the top’ to enter into a lottery of survival in ‘no man’s land’ will not be brooked. Conscientious objectors, however, are not spared the threat of death. Required to act as medics, they must also face the perils of battle. Furthermore they are reviled and subject to the brutality of others who fail to comprehend their ethos. They are called ‘feathermen’ because those who judge them as cowards give them white feathers as a symbol of a lack of bravery.
Tristan’s best friend, Will, has been executed as a traitor. Feeling obliged to return Will’s letters to his sister, Marian, the young veteran also struggles with a guilty secret he feels he must confess to her. Boyne maintains the reader’s attention by a skilful unravelling of this mystery. The readers is drawn to the story of the two young friends who gain comfort from each other when forced to cope with the unfamiliar regime of basic training and then the terror of mortal combat. I found the slow progression of this relationship to be compelling as the explanation is revealed as to why Will has decided to become an absolutist – a man who not only lays down his arms but refuses to do any act that contributes to the war effort. An act that is regarded as treason with the penalty of death by firing squad.
The choices that the two friends face are monumentally terrifying. They are expected to act like men yet they are only boys whose emotions are raw and confused. As such The Absolutist is an odd coming-of-age story as much as an examination of the hypocrisy and futility of war. Most of all, the novel forces the reader to consider the nature of cowardice and courage. Will is portrayed as brave even though branded as a traitor while Tristan, physically valiant, grapples with his own failure to make a stand.
Boyne’s style is flowing and engrossing, and his depiction of the lives and mores of those fighting during that ‘war to end all wars’ is vivid and real. The ending, though, was disappointing as the reader is finally shown an aging Tristan, tormented by his memories and choices. It may well have been best if the author had left him as a callow youth steeling himself to confront the truth of betrayal, loss and courage – and the assessment of whether he was a featherman after all.