Thursday, December 20, 2012

Staff Pick - The Absolutist by John Boyne

The war is over and Tristan Sadler travels to Norwich to deliver a package of letters to Will Bancroft's sister. Will Bancroft was his friend and fellow soldier and Tristan wants Will's sister Marion to know that he did not die a coward.

The Absolutist (M) by John Boyne is Tristan Sadler's story, although he for the most part is a witness to events until he makes just a few key decisions that will alter the course of his life irrecoverably. The story unfolds slowly going back in forth in time. Tristan meets with Marion to talk about her brother after the war. He travels to Norwich, an obviously damaged man, although he appears physically well. Next we are in Aldershot at the training camp where Will and Tristan have their fateful first meeting. Training complete, next comes the unremitting brutality of trench warfare. Cast further back in time, we see Tristan as a sixteen year old, callously cast out by his family. Finally, it is 1979 and octogenarian Tristan faces up to his lifetime of decisions.

An absolutist is someone who, not only is a conscientious objector, but a person who refuses to do anything at all in aid of the war effort. A conscientious objector may be assigned to farm or to work in a factory or to the very risky job of stretcher bearer. An absolutist would refuse all these tasks and may find himself incarcerated or executed.   

As the plot of The Absolutist is revealed slowly and somewhat predictably, you are left with a feeling of anticipation (or maybe dread) that events will surely take a very dark turn. Although the story is on the grim side, it is gripping and moving and entirely difficult to put down. The novel explores loneliness, betrayal, cowardice and bravery. Is it braver to follow your convictions and refuse to fight than to accept orders blindly and kill? Is it cowardly to refuse to fight and yet still benefit from the actions of soldiers? The Absolutist is a somewhat melodramatic tale told by an anti-hero whose actions will not fail to leave you conflicted.

Conscience: two soldiers, two pacifists, one family - a test of will and faith in World War I (M) by Louisa Thomas. "It was a time of testing and uncertainty. Even before World War I, there was a sense that country was changing. As Louisa Thomas reveals in Conscience, for the Thomas brothers, the struggle did not only take place on the battlefields. It was within themselves. Sons of a Presbyterian minister and grandsons of missionaries, the brothers shared a rigorous moral code, Princeton educations, and a faith in the era’s spirit of hope. Their upbringing prepared them for a life of service, but the war challenged their notions of citizenship, faith, and freedom and threatened to tear their family apart. Centered around the life of the oldest, Norman Thomas, Conscience tells the story of four brothers, and the choices they made." publisher

The First Casualty (M) by Ben Elton. "Flanders, June 1917: a British officer and celebrated poet is shot dead, killed not by German fire, but while he was recuperating from shell shock well behind the lines. A young English soldier is arrested and, although he protests his innocence, is charged with his murder. Douglas Konig is a conscientious objector, previously a detective with the London police, now imprisoned for his beliefs. He is released and sent to France in order to secure a conviction in the case. Forced to conduct his investigations amid the hell of the third Battle of Ypres, Konig soon discovers that both the evidence and the witnesses he needs are quite literally disappearing into the mud that surrounds him." publisher

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