Thursday, November 7, 2013

What Did the Book Club Think of John Boyne's "The Absolutist"?

There are a lot of reasons why books get chosen to be our in-store lit group pick. Sometimes there’s a recommendation from an attendee, and several times per year, we’ll tie into an upcoming event. Almost always, however, it’s a book that slipped by me, either in its hardcover run, or if it’s a paperback original, during its initial launch.

John Boyne’s The Absolutist is in the latter category, published by Other Press as a paperback original. He’s been writing for many years, both for kids and adults. Among his books for children, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is probably his most successful, having not only had a great run in bookstores, but also became a film. Among his adult titles, our bestselling book (including both Downer Schwartz and Boswell) was Crippen, though with the spurt of book club sales, The Absolutist just knocked it out of 2nd place, after Pajamas.

St. Martin’s published Boyne in a hard/soft deal, but Other Press has gone to paperback originals, which is their modus operandi for most fiction, after they revamped their program several years ago. He continues to be published in hardcover in the UK.

So I’ve been sitting on this book for a while. My friend Sue, who recently just passed the reins of Lake Forest Bookshop, was among the fans who told me to read this. I suggested it to Anne, who likes a good World War II story, especially one written by a born-and-bred Irishman.

I bought The Absolutist on a trip to City Lit in Chicago’s Logan Square, just after it opened. It was fun wandering around a new neighborhood, one that I’d heard about for years from one of our sales reps. The store was small, but nicely laid out., I had spoken to Teresa before the store opened, and it was interesting to see how her vision came to fruition. The only thing I worried about was lack of experience, but isn’t that generally the case? A bookselling career rarely gives you the savings needed to live the dream—I’m the first to admit I’m lucky. I was happy to hear that our friend Javier, a longtime Chicago bookseller, is joining the staff.

Released in 2011 in the UK, The Absolutist came out in the USA in 2012 and was actually a more recent novel than the follow-up The House of Special Purpose, a 2009 UK release. It’s the story of Tristan Sadler, a young man recently returned from the front. It’s 1919 and he’s decided to make a pilgrimage of Marion Bancroft, bearing the letters from his comrade who died in the war.

Tristan has lost contact with his family, and in a sense, this connection to Marion might be the closest he will come to a loved one. But of course, there are many, many secrets involved in the story of Tristan Sadler and Will Bancroft, but I’ll only give up one, which is sort of given away by the recommendations being from Colm Tóibín, Paul Russell, and William J. Mann. Everyone on the rec list was either Irish or gay or both—there’s nothing like targeting! Carlo Gébler, by the way, is Edna O’Brien’s son.

Oh, that secret I was going to give away? Tristan and Will were more than friends, sort of.

So the story jumps back and forth between Tristan’s tour of duty and that fateful trip to Norfolk to see Marion. We know that Tristan had an earlier entanglement that ended badly. We know that his father, a butcher in the Chiswick neighborhood of London, thought that the best that could happen would be for the Germans to shoot him dead. But of the 20 fellows in his original gang, he’s pretty much the only one who made it out alive and sane.

There are a number of themes that play out through this book, from shame and guilt, to the moral complexities of standing up for your beliefs. 

So what did the book club think? Most of the attendees liked the book, but our two naysayers nayed very loudly. The sticking point for N. twofold--she could see too many of the twists coming, and also had trouble with the writing style. The problem for J. was more with believability.

D. liked what he read of the book (long story, he started late as there was some confusion over the selection) and thought he did a good job with Norwich (which we also learned was pronounced Norridge). C. and R. also liked it, thought C. had guessed that R. would not. Interestingly enough, R. had just seen "12 Years a Slave" and saw parallels in the two stories.

G. thought Boyne did a good job capturing World War I, which by the way, is C.'s favorite war to read about. N. actually thought the story was too graphic, but nobody else really picked up on that. We had a discussion about the pivotal war scene, with one attendee comparing it to the My Lai massacre.

We wondered whether Tristan really was a broken man afterwards, and whether Marion had the right to feel the way she did in the final scene. J. thought Boyne sort of set her up as a phony. There was not too much discussion about this, but we did have a spirited conversation about the moral positions of both Tristan and Will. Why did Will become the absolutist? Were either of them cowards? Even one of our naysayers agreed that the novel made for a good discussion and she came to understand the book a bit more. N. remained silent.

Interestingly enough, the relationship (or sort of lack thereof) with Tristan and Will resonated with me, whereas it was not that interesting to the rest of the group. I think just about every gay man above a certain age has had Tristan's experience, though not necessarily in wartime. It is quite a mind...I'm not sure how to say this without using a curse word.

December in-store lit group meets Monday, December 2, 7 pm. Our selection is Louise Erdrich's The Round House.

January's in-store lit group selection is Liam Callanan's All Saints.We meet Monday, January 6, 7 pm.

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