01 August 2012

The Absolutist: book review

The AbsolutistThe Absolutist by John Boyne

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm in two minds about this book. The plot and the story line are quite good, and it is a very sad story. But the manner of its telling is not so good. The basic story is set in the First World War, where two new recruits, Tristan Sadler and Will Bancroft, stike up a friendship of sorts at Aldershot training camp. But they have different perceptions and expectations of their relationship, which sours when they go to the frontline trenches in France.

Tristan survives the war, but Will doesn't, and after the war Tristan goes to see Will's sister in Norwich, to take her the letters she had written to her brother, but also to tell her something about the manner of Will's death, which had brought disgrace on his family.

But the narrative seems unconvincing.

The blurb on the front cover says, "If you loved Birdsong, you'll love this."

Well, I read Birdsong, and I did find it a good read. But The Absolutist falls a long way short of Birdsong. It is not nearly as well or convincingly written. Sebastian Faulks, who wrote Birdsong had a feeling for the time and the place, and managed to give a convincing picture of what things might have been like during the First World War.

But in The Absolutist the time and place are fuzzy. I got the feeling that there was anachronistic slang on just about every couple of pages, and the dialogue felt as though it belonged to the 1980s rather than 1916 and 1919. For example, I can't imagine people saying, in 1919, "We were an item". Or perhaps they did, and I'm just not aware of how old that idiom is, but there are a number of other idioms that seem anachronistic, and this detracts from the story. If the dialogue is unconvincing, then one wonders how accurate the descriptions are.

I suppose such anachronisms are one of the pitfalls that writers of historical novels need to be careful to avoid, and John Boyne seems to fall into too many of them, and too many of them seem too obvious. An author does not need two write all dialogues in contemporary idiom, which might require too much research. But then it is best to avoid slang, and to write in more neutral English. Some writers, like Georgette Heyer, don't hold back from contemporary slang, but the more successful of them go to some trouble to make it seem authentic.

The book might be much more enjoyable to people who have no interest in history, and don't care if the atmosphere and setting are not authentic -- just badly-painted stage props for a story. And the story is quite good, and holds interest to the end. It's just a pity that it wasn't told better.

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