A bad soapie disguised as literary fiction

2011-08-17 00:00

SET during and just after World War One, The Absolutist deals with homosexual love amidst the horrors of trench warfare. Nothing new about that — every book dealing with the writing that came out of the “war to end all wars” has a chapter on the subject.

The Absolutist opens in 1919 with former soldier Tristan Sadler travelling to Norwich to return letters ­written by Marian Bancroft to her brother Will, while he was serving in the trenches. Will did not survive the war, executed by firing squad after laying down his rifle and refusing to fight.

Tristan also has another matter he wants to get off his chest. What exactly this is, author John Boyne saves as his ­final revelation but he must think his readers are a dim lot if they can’t work it all out by the halfway mark.

Boyne enjoyed huge success with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which dealt with the friendship ­between the son of a Nazi concentration camp commandant and a child inmate. The book and subsequent film stirred controversy, and reading The Absolutist one has the feeling the subject matter here has been ­deliberately chosen for an imagined shock value.

But given the potentially emotive content Boyne seems curiously ­uninvolved; rather than writing a passionately felt novel, he manipulates his material instead of allowing it to develop organically. A distinct air of cynical calculation pervades The ­Absolutist, from the unconvincing spray-on period detail to the cliffhanger revelations at the end of each of its six sections.

The Absolutist may be going as ­literary fiction, but it’s really a bad soapie.

BOOK REVIEW

The Absolutist

John Boyne

Doubleday

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