Popular fiction is not, necessarily, light. Tristan Sadler, narrator of The Absolutist, travels to Norwich just after the First World War. He is reading White Fang by Jack London, and he meets on the train an Agatha Christie-like crime novelist who cheerfully describes the crisp justice she dishes out. John Boyne too is a popular novelist (best known for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), but neither London’s adrenalin-stoked adventure nor Christie’s neat parcels of motive and retribution are his models here.
Boyne’s historical fiction can read like a cousin to the misery memoir – there’s a similar sense that people are fundamentally the sum of their traumas. The reader’s journey in The Absolutist does not just involve learning what happened to Will Bancroft, a young soldier who died during