Book Review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

Posted July 10, 2012 by Heather in Book Reviews / 17 Comments

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: The Absolutist by John BoyneThe Absolutist by John Boyne
Published by Other Press on July 10, 2012
Genres: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320
Source: the publisher

Goodreads | Amazon

It is September 1919: twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver a package of letters to the sister of Will Bancroft, the man he fought alongside during the Great War.

But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan's visit. He can no longer keep a secret and has finally found the courage to unburden himself of it. As Tristan recounts the horrific details of what to him became a senseless war, he also speaks of his friendship with Will--from their first meeting on the training grounds at Aldershot to their farewell in the trenches of northern France. The intensity of their bond brought Tristan happiness and self-discovery but also confusion and unbearable pain.

(from the inside flap)

John Boyne’s The Absolutist is a novel about love and war told in the first-person by Tristan Sadler, a young veteran of World War I who is dealing with intense shame and guilt as a consequence of his involvement in the war. It is a highly thought-provoking novel about conscientious objection and moral absolutism; conformity vs. nonconformity; cowardice vs. bravery; love and loss. The Absolutist depicts the atrocities every soldier faces during war, and how soldiers are affected–both physically and psychologically–by what they see and do. World War I is not the only war that John Boyne writes about in The Absolutist, though; this novel is also about the personal wars of Tristan Sadler and Will Bancroft: both men are fighting their own internal wars, as well as fighting losing battles with each other, the military, and society at large. John Boyne does an excellent job of depicting the lives of people who are relegated to the margins because of who they love and/or what they believe, and the huge amount of courage it takes to stand up for themselves, and more importantly, to stay true to themselves.

Tristan’s story unfolds slowly–one step at a time–by moving between the present and the past, and this format makes The Absolutist a real page-turner. John Boyne writes beautifully, and I almost read it in one sitting–I did not want to put it down. Although its subject matter is very serious and at times heartbreaking, The Absolutist never becomes too heavy or depressing–Boyne does a great job of keeping the emotion in this book well-balanced. This is my first time reading anything by John Boyne, and I will definitely be reading more of his books in the future. I highly recommend The Absolutist to everyone who enjoys reading literary fiction.


P.S. I also recommend reading Geoff’s thoughts about The Absolutist on his blog, The Oddness of Moving Things–it’s a very thoughtful review.

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher through BOOK CLUB.)


  • Looking for this book the next time I go book shopping. It sounds unforgettable.

    • It’s a great book–I’m still thinking about it and I finished it last week.

  • Thank you for posting this! This book is on my Amazon wishlist and now I’m quite convinced I need to purchase it post haste.

    Just out of curiosity, what did you think of the first person narrative?

    • I think the first person narrative worked really well in this book–not only because it gave the story a more personal feeling and I was able to connect very well with Tristan, but also because it raised questions about the trustworthiness of the narrator. I think it gives readers more to think about and analyze.

  • Thanks for the link! I agree with you, I’m still mulling it over in my head. I need to just buy a copy now it’s been released and re-read it.

    • Just glanced over Book Group and I will definitely chime in when I get home this evening. Maybe it’s how we read, but they don’t seem to have read the same details we did: the chance meeting in the trenches, the physical struggle within Will in confinement, and the way Will’s countenance slips at the end, etc.

    • You’re welcome! I really loved your review and how you compared it to the other book (which I will be looking for in my local library next week–I hope they have it).

      • Had to come back and say thanks again – pretty frequently I see someone pushed to my blog from yours 😀 On a separate but related note, do you watch Downton Abbey? We started season 2 and it reminded me of this book a little bit (only tangentially) with Thomas (the gay soldier/butler) in the trenches. Tom couldn’t understand why I got so excited about the horrible war scenes.

        • Aw, you’re welcome, Geoff. I’m glad I’m sending traffic there–I really enjoy reading your blog.

          Funny you should ask about Downtown Abbey. I haven’t watched any of it, yet, but my MIL loaned me season one on DVD. If you’re recommending it, I’ll have to start watching it soon.

          • Oh you should! We watched season one over about three days and have been desperately waiting for two to come out on hulu or netflix. It just did and we’ve only had time to watch one episode (the WW1 mention/example).

  • Of course I want to read this now! 🙂

    • I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I did. 🙂

  • I just saw this book featured on Books on the Nightstand after coming across your post. Looks like this is a new book to watch!

  • A fine review. Interesting that Tristan and Will had ato fight their own personal wars as well as the WW1. A good literary analogy.

    • “Absolutist” applied to more than one person in the book, too. I was afraid to say too much, because this is one of those books that should be left to unfold for the reader (without knowing too much about it beforehand).

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