A novel set in the trenches of World War I, one of several by Irish author Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, 2006, etc.) staged amid the 20th century’s worst moments.
As the story opens, Tristan Sadler, who has just turned 21, is in the countryside north of London, looking to deliver a packet of letters from a wartime friend, Will Bancroft, to Will’s sister. Sadler is at once shattered and defiant: He has survived the horrors of the Western Front, one of just two boys—and boys most of them were—in his basic training unit to make it out alive. As for the rest: Well, Boyne honors convention by giving each soldier a turn in the spotlight, sometimes briefly, sometimes for symbolic purposes. One is killed off fairly early on in the proceedings, but not before he has had the chance to trouble the unit with doubts about just what this war among royal cousins is all about. In time, the seditious spirit will spread to Will, who, for complex and subtle reasons, has decided to become an “absolutist”—that is, to have absolutely no part in the war effort, not even as a stretcher bearer. That’s the kind of thing that can get a fellow in trouble in the king’s army—and so, too, the forbidden love that Will and Tristan share. If Will is an absolutist, then Tristan is a situationist; when Will asks him whether he has any principles, he replies, “No. ... People, perhaps. But not principles. What good are they?”
Some of the key moments of the book—notably an encounter with a frightened German soldier—are very effective.