Book Review: The Absolutist by John Boyne vs Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

The Absolutist by John BoyneToday I’m starting my review by presenting The Absolutist to you in the exact same way I was introduced to it.  Right on the front cover is the announcement: “If you loved Birdsong, you’ll love this”.

Now, I did indeed love Birdsong, which I read last year – I’d have to say that it’s one of my favourite novels – so the publishers at this point have really upped the stakes.  What they’re saying to me is that it’s not just a good book, it’s up there in ‘modern classic’ territory.

Unfortunately, I felt that this did the book a real disservice.  Within the first few pages, I was uncomfortably aware that the writing was not comparable to that of Faulks’s.  While Birdsong cleverly builds tension and subtly reveals the intricacies of the characters, whether in peaceful or chaotic surroundings, The Absolutist is much more… earthy, and at times clumsy with its language, as if it doesn’t have time for niceties but just sloshes everything out in front of you with a dinner lady’s ladle.

I can, in terms of plot, see why the two have been compared: both centre around a young man, totally alone in the world, who is trapped in the trenches of World War I, and these central scenes are contrasted with tension-filled scenes of peacetime from both before and after the war.

Birdsong’s hero Stephen has been sent by his company to meet the manager of a branch in Amiens, France.  Here he meets Isabelle, the wife of his host, with whom he falls hopelessly, passionately in love.  Later we meet him again in the muddy trenches, isolated amongst his comrades and with no-one to write home to; we must try to piece together what went wrong between two people who seemed so right for each other.

Tristan, the protagonist of The Absolutist, is, at the start of the novel, on a train travelling to a tatty B&B in Norwich, England, just after the war.  He is here to visit Marian, the sister of a close friend who died out in France, and to confide a secret which he is not yet sure he can bring himself to reveal.  In his flashbacks to his childhood and his war-time experiences we slowly discover what that secret is.

In both books we are made exquisitely aware of the main character’s complex, sensitive yet self-preservatory nature.  The parallels are clear, yet still I struggle to understand why the publishers would brazenly declare that The Absolutist  is on a par with, if not better than, Birdsong.

Sadly, the book itself was, in truth, overall an enjoyable and compulsive read.  When I’m in the right mood I don’t mind a book which is great read but not a great write (can I say that?  I think I just did… moving on).  I kept thinking of when I read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and wincing at times over the writing, while at the same time I was crazy about the story and couldn’t put the book down.  The quality of the writing matters to me, but usually not enough to spoil a brilliant plot.

The problem here was that having put the idea in my head, and hoping that this book would be as good as Faulks’s work, I was constantly comparing the two, and Boyne’s came up short.

But then again, I was also disappointed with Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which the critics loved.  Another example of not living up to over-hyped expectations.  I liked the idea of the meeting between two children from different sides of a concentration camp fence, and I didn’t hate the book – in fact I thought what the writer was trying to do was very clever.  I just didn’t love it as much as I was expecting to, and I found it all a bit unbelievable, particularly the innocence of the privileged German boy.

In conclusion?  If you’ve read Boyne’s other works and enjoyed them, or you love reading a good story you can whiz through without analysing it too much, then you’ll probably like The Absolutist.  Just don’t come to it expecting it to be another Birdsong!  On the other hand I’d recommend Birdsong to everyone.  I also absolutely loved the BBC’s adaptation of Birdsong from earlier this year, which made me cry (twice).

 

Do you disagree?  Did you love this book and hate Birdsong?  Or were you just not blown away by it like me?  Leave a comment below.

 

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