This dazzling display of literary genius seriously touched me in ways I never thought a book or any story could. Potent, persuasive and hypnotic, from the very first pages, Boyneís novel of thwarted love set against the Great War had me at its mercy. A disturbing, haunting and lyrical reading experience, never
before has a story detailed with so much vigor the blood, violence, lice, rats and liquid mud that soaked the trenches of the Western Front.
What starts out as a tale of two sensitive and naive young men sequestered at Aldershot for the summer to train as soldiers rapidly
evolves into a narrative of shame and guilt that traces a silent romantic duo
whose passions are withheld, affections concealed, and romance denied. Tristan Sadler and Will Bancroft are just two boys among a group of ďloud-mouthed, vulgar and untidy brothers" who stink of sweat and bogus heroism.
In this world of solidarity on the training ground and bravery on the battlefield, Tristan and Will immediately hit it off, but Willís easy, smiling friendship only adds to Tristanís yearnings as ďWillís entire spirit seems about to press down on him.Ē It only takes one night to ignite Tristanís deep passion, one that he knows he must keep hidden from the world. In a
milieu of blood and sacrifice where love is considered ďa fool's game,Ē Tristan is still filled with these conflicting emotions when he arrives on Norwich in September 1919 to give a set of bound-together letters to Marion, Willís older sister.
Sitting in a cafť reading a copy of Jack Londonís White Fang, Tristan
only wants to be left alone with his thoughts, but the unfamiliar surroundings produce a familiar anguish that is embodied in the red, livid scars that stand across Tristan's legs;
the strained Marion, who makes him even more unsettled as she nervously shifts from topic to topic, acknowledging that her brother had become ďso disillusioned with things"; Tristanís recollections of that dreadful afternoon when his father beat him to within an inch of his life; and his horrible clamminess at finally seeing Will's father, the Reverend Bancroft, his appearance inexplicable against the placid backdrop of Norwich Cathedral.
Unfolding his novel in Tristanís first-person voice, Boyne describes the inner torments of Tristan, Will and Marion.
The dialogue articulates their deepest emotions, which makes the events in the book seem almost hyper-real. The story is succinct and often subtle, a combination of a very simple point of view told from a complex place, combined with an enormous, life-altering event. Boyne is always poetic as he immerses us in Tristanís experiences on the Western Front's field of battle: the noise of shelling and gunfire, the blood and sweat, the dark clouds of smoke.
Tristan fears that Will might denounce him as ďa degenerate and a false friend" if he reaches out for him. Yet the pain and remorse over what happens to Will (and Tristanís part in it) have such a profound effect on Tristan that he's never able to see past his betrayal. This point of view only heightens Boyne's "in the closet" theme, which in turn becomes a powerful metaphor for his hero's lifelong existential angst. Likewise, the themes of courage and bravery, and also Tristan's longing and Will's denial, reflect a silence over a relationship between two soldiers that must remain a secret.
One wonders at Tristan's lack of resistance in breaking free of his closeted bonds. Even in 1979, when we see his life come full circle, there's an emotional anguish as wide and sparse as the physical desolation he once endured. Willís decision to become an ďabsolutist,Ē which sabotages Tristanís unrequited yearning for him, saddens our hearts for both men, given the time and circumstances in which they lived.