As one of the last people left on this planet who has not read The Boy In The Striped Pajamas (2006), I was not familiar with John Boyne as a writer when I first picked up this book. However, I still went into it with certain expectations. A story about a young soldier who falls in love with a fellow private during World War One? I flew through The Absolutist in one sitting with a stack of tissues and a fluffy pillow on standby at all times, because there was no way that this would end well (“spoiler” alert: it didn’t).
On the surface, this book seems to have been tailor-made for me in terms of theme and setting, and at first I did enjoy it. However, the following morning I kept thinking of things I didn’t like about it and as I was writing this review, I discovered even more; it turns out that on the surface is exactly where The Absolutist stays.
It seems to me that John Boyne has a certain knowledge of how fiction works and as a writer he is competent enough, but this novel is very much a paint-by-numbers work. The chapters end exactly where you think they will, many of the tropes will be familiar to you if you have ever read Great War literature or Tragic Gay Love Stories before, and he sprinkles some biblical allusions here and there to keep it vaguely intellectual. As a result, the whole thing stays strangely heartless. Boyne is so concerned with pushing all the right buttons to make you cry that his characters can’t get any word in that does not contribute to the main plot. There is very little introspection, no time to breathe, which is a big problem when your book hinges upon emotional turmoil. Boyne tells us about the pain, but we never get to feel it.
On a related note, The Absolutist seems desperate to recreate the shocking twist of The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, which results in some very clunky foreshadowing. We are shown glimpses of exposition, but Boyne then immediately drops the curtain again while ominous music plays in the background (dun-dun-duuuuun!), cackling: “mysterious, right? What did he mean by that? All will be revealed in chapter six! Or will it?” He delivers the biggest punch last, which, granted, is a pretty dreadful one. However, we are barely given any time to process what happened (and neither is the protagonist), because once the jig is up, Boyne suddenly loses interest and wraps it all up with one final chapter where he gleefully tugs your heartstrings some more (“isn’t that just awful?“).
The Absolutist has a gut-wrenching story and some interesting ideas on the true meaning of bravery tucked away somewhere, but it is buried underneath layers and layers of narrative gimmicks that, instead of enhancing the story, only take away from its emotional impact. Surprising your audience isn’t everything, Boyne. If you don’t spend time on the inner lives of the characters and how they cope with what happens, it doesn’t mean anything in the long run. Readers may shed a tear or two when they first read it (especially if they have never encountered this kind of narration before), but after the initial shock has worn off, the tragedy won’t stick. In the hands of another author this could have been an absolute masterpiece, but as is, The Absolutist is adequate but ultimately forgettable. What a shame.
(If you want to read works about and/or by queer soldiers in the Great War that will haunt you for days on end, read the letters of Frank Cocker in A Broken World or the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Bring tissues and a fluffy pillow. You’ll need them.)