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In Absence of Men (Philippe Besson) Book Review

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James Thompson
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What a book! This was a read which left me very dazed and confused. After reading it I had to go back and reread some parts as I struggled to understand what was going on (But in a good way). I don’t get the opportunity to read much, less so books like this, chock full of crazy literary devices.

At its core, this is a book about a “Relationship” (Not all the ties are explicitly love) triangle between three characters. There is Vincent, an upper class sixteen-year-old boy, Marcel, a forty-five-year-old writer, and Arthur, a twenty-one-year-old soldier. It’s also worth noting that this the version I read is a translation from Polish and that at times this can cause the writing to appear clunky, but in other places where it seems to work better is real nice to read.

It is split into three distinct parts, a first part written in a second person narrative across one week, a second part with letters written between the characters and a third conclusion type section. For me personally I really enjoyed the first and last parts but disliked the second. The first part builds the characters nicely and the plot is driven forward really well, but this is lacking in the second part. For me this was because I struggled to suspend my disbelief around letters being very direct about feelings in a time when they considered immoral. Surely letters would’ve been read and checked by commanders, postmen from the frontline and military in general. The final part worked much better, even though the big dramatics happen at the end of part two. It ties everything together really nicely.

One thing that worked especially well was psychological fiction aspect. The characters were in love and the same sex aspect seemed secondary. Replace one of the names and this book felt closer than most I have read to a heterosexual romantic drama. I thought that this complemented the second person narrative part in the first part of the story. It made me feel more involved without having to force the characters to argue for acceptance (Which was tackled separately through Arthur’s mother)

In all these senses it weirdly reminded me of a God’s own country set inside a historical context with a coming-of-age spin. It felt intimate, passionate, and really fucking sad. A great book for me!

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Thank you so much for your review! Very useful and complete.