Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The House of Special Purpose - John Boyne

In 1915 16 year old Georgy Daniilovich Jachmenev saves the life of the cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, from this point his life is changed beyond recognition. A farmers son with little education he is catapaulted into the heart of the Royal Court in St Petersburg. Given the task of looking after and mentoring the young heir to the throne Alexei Romanov, Boyne has created someone who is at the heart of one of the greatest upheavals of the 2oth Century.

Intertwined with the story of Georgy and the royal family is the story of Georgy and his wife Zoya living a quiet life in London in 1981. Zoya is in the last stages of cancer and Georgy looks back over his life and that of his wife since leaving Russia in 1918. The two stories are told in alternating chapters, the Romanov strand moves forward in time whilst the post 1918 story goes backwards in time until both stories collide in 1918. This device allows Boyne to cover a lot of ground and whilst it is effective in moving the narrative on (or backwards) at a clipping pace it is also a source of frustration as potentially interesting episodes, such as the death of their daughter and Georgy's war work, are dropped and people appear and disappear in the lives of the Jackmenev's very quickly.

The two emigres life after 1918 is quiet and unassuming which contrasts nicely with Georgy's life in the Winter Palace. We see him at the centre of events as Rasputin excercises control over the Tsaritsa Alexandra, the Tsar continues his disasterous campaign against his Cousin Kaiser Wilhelm across the battlefields of Europe, the Bolshevicks take control and the history of the House of Romanov is played out in the House of Special Purpose. Boyne's Georgy is a passive narrator, there is no attempt to analyse the events of the day or the reasons for the fall of the Romnov's other than occasional references to the poor conditions in which the general population lived and the luxury of the royal family's life. However, Boyne manipulates the narrative effectively so that when the two stories collide anyone who does not know the history of the Royal Family will see how the otherwise quiet and unassuming life of the two Russian exiles begins and ends in 1918.

The lack of analysis or anything approaching an exploration of the ideas and ideals of the various factions in Russia at the time places the book firmly in the young adult fiction camp. It would be a good starting point for an interest in what was happening in Russia during the First World War together with the later controversy over the identity of those members of the Royal family who were killed. A good story well told.

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