John Boyne’s tale of conscience

The First World War is a familiar subject for fiction but the acclaimed novelist and former UEA student John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, believes he has found an original approach in his new novel, partly set in Norwich. He spoke to KEIRON PIM.

It was one of the most morally difficult aspects of the First World War, a poignant issue that still arouses strong emotions almost a century later.

Among the millions of young men who lost their lives while fighting against Germany, there were a good number who signed up to fight, found themselves driven to near-insanity by the monotony of bloodshed and exhaustion, and then, when they had given their shellshocked nervous systems to the war effort and found themselves unable to continue, were shot at dawn by their superiors for supposed cowardice.

Still others made the sane and conscious decision to lay down their arms and declare themselves conscientious objectors to what they saw as a flawed and futile war; they met the same fate.

John Boyne explores the subject in his new novel, The Absolutist. Best known for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a novel for younger readers in which he explores the world of a naive young German boy who befriends a Jewish boy despite being the son of an SS officer at Auschwitz, this time he steps back to the first world war to examine another morally ambiguous milieu.

But while the narrator, Tristan Sadler, is preoccupied with his experiences in the mudbound trenches of northern France, and in particular his brief sexual relationship with fellow soldier Will Bancroft, much of the novel takes place postwar in Norwich, Will's home city.

Boyne is an Irish writer resident in Dublin but knows Norwich well, being one of the numerous writers to find success after studying Creative Writing at the UEA.

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'I'd wanted to write something set in Norwich for quite a while and because I knew that half of this novel was going to be set in England after the war, it seemed like an opportunity to finally do that,' he said. 'But also I thought it would be good to write it in a place that is not London, a smaller place where people would know each other closer and so the effects of someone's actions would be more noticeable.'

In a big capital city it is quite possible to lose oneself but in the village-like atmosphere of early 20th century Norwich it would have been hard for a family to show their faces in public if their son had been shot as a conscientious objector. The fact that this sense of stigma lingers even today is what initially drew Boyne to the subject.

'It began about three years ago when I saw the news report of a monument that was being erected in a town in England with the names of soldiers that had died in the first world war,' he said. 'And descendants of those soldiers who had either been shot as conscientious objectors, or had been shellshocked and shot in the trenches, were distraught about the fact that their ancestors weren't being included on this monument.

'It got me thinking about the conscientious objectors and I started reading about it. I spent quite a bit of time at the Imperial War Museum in London and read a lot there, but I tried to get as many letters as I could from soldiers who had been in the trenches and the letters back from their families, and I tried to follow the psychological progression of the young men and how that changed between the training ground and northern France. That's how I aimed to find the most truthful voice I could find for the book.'

Tristan and Will fight alongside one another in the rat and lice-infested trenches, a world horribly well evoked, but in 1917 Will refuses to continue fighting on a point of principle, a decision that costs him his life. In September 1919 Tristan takes the train to Norwich on the pretext of delivering to Will's sister Marian a clutch of letters that she sent him – but he has a deeper reason for needing to see her, an urge to unburden himself of the truth about his friendship with Will.

The atmosphere of postwar Norwich is well caught in a first-person narrative delivered from the wistful perspective of Tristan as an 81-year-old, looking back on a life.

'I knew that Tristan was going to be looking back from old age,' says Boyne, 'and I was going for quite an elegiac tone, a tone of regret and remorse.'

? The Absolutist is published by Doubleday, priced �16.99.