His novels tackle a range of weighty historical events, from the terrors of the Russian 20th century to the Holocaust. However, his concern is always with fringe figures, outsiders like peasants and children who have no real influence or simply do not understand what they’re caught up in.
The Absolutist, his seventh novel for adults, continues this pattern. Set against the backdrop of the First World War, it tells the story of 21-one-year old Tristan Sadler, a repressed survivor of the needless slaughter in France.
Boyne’s careful, effective introduction to the character also establishes his shattered world, a post-war English honour culture where everyone has lost somebody. Manners, propriety and reputation are everything here, and while being a veteran affords him a certain status, it is still a suffocating, impossible place for a young gay man like Tristan.
Nevertheless, as he did at the front, Tristan endures. The novel opens with him returning the letters of his friend Will Bancroft to the dead soldier’s sister Marion, something of a suffragette who works with traumatised ex-servicemen. In the course of an autumn day, Tristan will tell Marion of his friendship with her brother and how it was that Will came to lay down his guns on the battlefield. Indeed, Tristan may be the book’s protagonist, but the complex, doomed Will Bancroft is its real hero.
Meeting as raw recruits, Tristan and Will form an immediate and intense bond amidst the regimental order of army life, though Boyne never uses the words “gay” or “homosexual”. The growing affection between the two men, though it eventually becomes physical, is instead more subtly portrayed. “We’re different,” Will tells Tristan. “Let’s not let them break us.”
It is to Boyne’s credit that the novel causes one to question the hair’s breadth between a coward — a so-called “feather man” — and a soldier of genuine principle. Witnessing a profound injustice, Will declares himself not just a conscientious objector, but the absolutist of the title, a man who “won’t fight, won’t help those who are fighting, won’t work in a hospital or come to the aid of the wounded. Won’t do anything, really, except sit on his hands and complain the whole thing’s a sham”.
It is a brave, idiotic decision, a Gordian Knot of moral uncertainties which Boyne proceeds to tease apart in his familiar, and ultimately poignant fashion.
If there is a criticism, it is that the novel never quite captures the sheer horror of lice and vermin or of watching friend after friend die in front of you. Boyne’s is a gentleman’s picture of war, and though the terrible sound of mud in the trenches is evoked repeatedly, the conflict’s squalor and endless death are depicted in a surprisingly refined fashion.
It’s all very civilised, arguably too civilised, but then the author’s concern throughout is less with the continental conflagration and more with the lonely war Tristan wages against himself. That Boyne has captured absolutely.