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The House of Special Purpose

abstract:The House of Special PurposeFrom the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas comes a new historic fiction. John Boyne’s seventh novel, The House of Special Purpose (Doubleday, 2009) transports you back in time to a fractious Russia in the early 20th Century. Two worlds are at war; the Tsar’s days of lavish enjoyment run alongside a rebellious populous. Boyne’s talent is that when faced with a story that has death, tragedy and loss at its centre, he manages to find light in his characters that make his novels so compelling.

August 12, 2010
— Meet Georgy Daniilovich Jachmenevis who's in his eighties, the main narrator of the story, a lynch pin not only between times but also social circles. Boyne expertly has us jumping through sixty years of history, weaving the unbelievable tale of the Russian Royal Family with that of two young lovers. He mixes fictional characters amongst those he has spent months researching, creating an intimate account of this dramatic time in history.

Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1971 Boyne studied English Literature at Trinity College and then went on to the University of East Anglia to take Creative Writing, winning the Curtis Brown prize. His fifth novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas spent 80 weeks at No.1 on The New York Times bestseller list, and amongst other accolades was made into an award winning Miramax film. When asked why he chose Russia as the subject for his latest novel he explained that it was a period of time he has always been fascinated by. He spent time in St. Petersburg and wrote while sitting within the Winter Palace, imagining the ghosts of his characters moving along the ornate hallways.

We start in England in the early 80’s and learn that Georgy’s wife, Zoya, is close to dying from ovarian cancer. Racked with grief Georgy goes back in time and we follow his story from Kashin, Muscovy, a rural area of Russia. A misinterpreted act of courage leads to Georgy’s life, as a peasant farmer, changing forever when he is assigned a post within the guard for the Royal Family. His head is filled with stories told to him by his doting older sister, Asya, who he will later betray in youthful exuberance. He arrives in St. Petersburg and is given the job of bodyguard for The Tsarevich Alexei, the Tsar’s only son and the next in line to the throne of Russia.

The Winter Palace

“My first view of St. Petersburg came the following night as we finally entered the capital. What I would soon recognize to be the glory of Peter the Great’s triumphant design was diminished somewhat by the darkness of the evening, although that did not prevent me from staring in amazement at the breadth of the streets and the number of people, horses and carriages that travelled past me in all directions.”
The shock of being thrown into a web of manners, protocol and refinement rub against Georgy’s simple upbringing. His life becomes more complicated as he realises why Alexei is so cared for and it is then considerably more complex when he falls for non other than the Grand Duchess Anastasia. The myth of Anastasia is an interesting one, as it revolves more around her death than her life, and the stories are more about the pretenders than the woman herself. Boyne’s adaptation allows us to live the fantasy that she escaped and that a little bit of Royal Russia lives on.

Romanov Family

“I stared at her face in the portrait. She was young, of course, but then I was less than two years her senior. I recognized her immediately. She was the girl I had met at the chestnut stand earlier in the evening; the young lady who had looked up at me and smiled when she stepped from her boat an hour before. The one who had made me turn around in such a state of confusion, bewildered by my sudden rush of passion.”

The threatening figure of Rasputin looms over them all and as the Revolution begins to unfold it drains the life out of the ruling Tsar as his world crumbles down around them. Always with an imminent dark cloud floating above them we follow the young lovers as they flee to Paris, only there to be faced with more sadness and tragedy. Georgy is a constant through these events, remaining steadfast, his outlook on life and the world relatively simple in comparison to that of his wife Zoya who suffers from depression all of her life.

“I sat down and ran my hand across my face in desperation. I loved my wife very much, but there had always been an unspoken thread of torment that had run through our lives. Her pain, her memories, were so much part of her that she had very little room for anyone else’s; even mine.”

As I mentioned Boyne has a talent for interlacing the tragic with the uplifting. Alongside the heavy drama of their past we watch as Georgy and Zoya get married and live together for the first time, have their first child and grandchild. Although tragedy never seems far behind, they have a love that is eternal, and while they both harbour shame and regret for the past, they have seen it through.

The House of Special Purpose (Doubleday, 2009) is as dramatic as the events themselves. The bloody ending of the Romanov rule interlaced with the story of young lovers fleeing for their lives, the past haunting them wherever they go. This is a quick paced and emotional novel, hard to put down and hard to stay dry-eyed.



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