John Boyne, born in Dublin in 1971, manages to summon the spirits of two very particular men, sent to fight in the bloody, muddy trenches of France in WW I, 1916-1918. Of the twenty in their training camp at Aldergate, two survive.  One of those who died was shot for cowardice, for being a “feather” in the argot of the time. The matter of the book, told by a fellow soldier whose love for the dead man was rejected,  is a story of shame, longing, cowardice and courage;  of living with regret, of trying to make whole a sundered past.

An absolutist, a word I first came across in Adam Hochschild’s  marvelous history, To End All Wars, was a draftee in England during WW I who not only refused to fight, but refused to have anything to do with the war.  Many CO’s agreed to be ambulance drivers, stretcher bearers, food servers, truck drivers, while refusing to carry a gun.  Absolutists would do none of these things.  All COs were vilified; absolutists the worst.  Those who carried stretchers up out of the trenches suffered some of the highest casualties of the war and gained the grudging respect of fellow soldiers, losing  the epithet of being a “feather.” Not so the absolutists.  ‘Cowardice on an extreme level,’ explains a doctor in the novel.

The story opens with the narrator, Tristan Sadler, not quite a year after the end of the war, going from London to Norwich to return a sister’s letters written to a friend, Will Bancroft, dead in France, to her.  The narrative shifts smoothly between the present and reminiscences from his past, both before and during the war.  We hear of his first friend at the age of 15, Peter, a first kiss, and the almost invisible suggestion of his desire.  We hear the first hint of the horror he has gone through: a soldier who had both legs blown off, Christmas, 1917.  We learn of his uneasiness in meeting the Marian Bancroft, but that it had his initiative which had brought him here.

The narrative then shifts, as it will several times, to the two years of his time at war, this one starting at Aldershot Military Barracks from April to June of 1916.  Here he meets Will Bancroft, and they both meet Arthur Wolf who has put in for Objector status.  As Sergeant Clayton explains to the other recruits,

“…you’re probably aware that there are some men of your generation who feel no obligation to defend their country.  Objectors, they call themselves.  Chaps who examine their conscience and find nothing there to satisfy the call of duty.  They look like other men, of course.  They have two eyes and two ears, two arms and two legs.  No balls, though, that’s a given.”

In the physical exam line, Boyne will reveal, as he does masterfully throughout the novel, another couple of hints of who Sadler is, and what the tension in the novel will be:

“Without thinking how it will look, I take him all in with a glance and am struck once again by how good-looking he is.  Out of nowhere I have a sudden flashback to that afternoon at my former school, the day of my expulsion, a memory still burried deep inside me.

I close my eyes for a moment and when I open them I find that I am looking straight into Will’s eyes.  He’s turned his head to look at me; it’s a curious moment. I wonder, Why isn’t he looking away?  And then, Why aren’t I?

Before this section is over, Tristan and Will have had a first encounter, which leads to Will completely shutting him out for weeks. Wolf who has received his Objector status, is found dead: murdered says Will, an accident says Sergeant Clayton.  And so all the pieces are set up for the fine revelations through the rest of the novel: Who is Will and who is Tristan?  Which one is principled and which is not?  Why won’t Tristan support Will in reporting the murder of a captured German soldier? Why was Will shot for cowardice?  Will Tristan be able to tell the whole truth about Will, and himself,  to his sister, and it turns out, to her parents?

The descriptions of the freezing, mud and shit filled trenches, of the blood and gore of war, are as good as you’ll find in All Quiet on the Western Front, or Paths of Glory.

A cry of despair and weariness emanates from the pit of my stomach as the wall behind me begins to crumble and dissolve into a slow-moving river of thick, black, rat-infused mud that slides down my back and slips into the gaps at the tops of my boots.  I feel the sludge seeping its way into my already sodden socks and throw myself against the tide, desperate to push the barricade back into place before I am submerged beneath it.  A tail passes quickly across my hands, whipping me sharply, then another; next, a sharp bite.

or,

He turns, notices [the light of his cigarette] and I am immediately rendered blind by what feels like a bucket of hot mucus being chucked in my face.  I spit and blink, retching against the side of the trench as I throw myself to the ground, wiping whatever filth this is away from my eyes, and look across to see Potter’s body lying at my feet, a great hole in his head from where the bullet entered, one eye completely gone — somewhere on my person, I suspect– the other hanging uselessly from its socket.

or

My body is not my own anymore: the lice have offered joint tenancy to the rats and vermin for whom I am a chew-toy.

The Absolutist is a good book, one you’ll think about after you close it. You will know much about Tristan Sadler, and how appropriate his name is to his life. You will surely ask yourself, who was a coward and who was not.  You’ll roll the question of love and its permutations around in your mind.  Will’s declaration that opposition to the war must be declared while the fighting is going on even if it means his death, will remain with you. It’s a good book, but it’s not a great one.

Boyne’s plotting and ability to reveal one secret at a time until Sadler’s life story is complete,  is superb but I would have like more of a language lift from time to time. When I read I often copy down, or flag particular phrases or images I think are exceptional; I marked none here. In fact, in some places where it seemed to me he could have sung, he spoke in a written monotone. I would have liked the question of cowardice and courage, at the center of the story,  to be more thickly stirred still.    And this reader would have liked to know more about the interior of Will Bancroft or Arthur Wolf and their wrestle with their consciences, their fear of retribution, their fear of thinking themselves cowards.  I would have liked to know more about Bancroft’s notion of himself, his participation in love making with Tristan followed by deep repugnance. Who was this man who, at the final hour, felt so strongly about a principle?

I would have liked it had Boyne given himself more time and pages to explore some of these things and given us an improvement on an already pretty fine book.

And if you don’t believe me, how about Colm Toibin ? “A wonderful, sad, tender book [that] is going ot have an enormous impact on everyone who reads it.”