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The Russian Revolution is a period that fascinates me, but for one reason or another, I haven't read much about it, and so know very little. I picked up 'The House of Special Purpose' on a whim, hoping to learn a bit more about this period (and the fact that it was a signed edition also helped sway me!)
The story begins in 1981 in England, and is narrated by the Russian refugee, Georgy Jachmenev. He fled from the Russian Revolution with his wife, Zoya, and has spent the rest of his life working in the library at the British Museum. As the story opens, Zoya is dying from cancer, prompting Georgy to recollect their life together. From then on, the story is told in a mixture of flashbacks; one storyline beginning with Georgy starting service as a royal guard in St. Petersburg, and moves forward in time. The other starts with Georgy's life in Britain and moves backward in time. For the finale, the two storylines converge, finally revealing how Georgy and Zoya escape Russia. Because of the non-linear time flow, it is difficult to adequately describe the plot without giving too much away; but to summarise, we learn of Georgy's life in Imperial Russia, including the scheming of Rasputin, the aloofness of the Tsarina, and the innocence of the young heir Alexei. We also follow his life as a refugee, first in France, and then in Britain, and the tragedy that his followed him and his family.
I thought the two separate storylines was a really clever way of telling the story. It allows us to follow the entire life of the main characters, giving us the full experience of the effects of the Russian revolution, but still saving the most important incidents until the end. The story was hauntingly sad at times, but beautifully written, with a real sense of loss throughout; the loss of their country and identities, the loss of friends and family, and the loss of Zoya herself. John Boyne manages to illuminate a couple and a country that we can really care about, and mourn the loss of. Liberties are taken with the history of the period; I don't know enough about it to comment fully, but there is one glaring alteration that everyone should be able to spot. It was this that was the biggest problem with the book; not that the alteration was made, but the fact that it was incredibly obvious. The ending was obviously supposed to be a big twist, and a surprise, but it was signposted so obviously throughout the book that I was quite disappointed. Not only this, but Boyne indulges in the biggest cliché about the Romanovs. If you can get over this though, I thought the book was very beautifully and cleverly written. I really cared about the characters and their situation, even if it was made painfully obvious what was going to happen to them.
Much has been written about the shocking events that toppled the Romanovs so it's a brave author who places his fictional narrator at the heart of the Tsar's household in the last years before the Russian revolution. John Boyne seems to specialise in writing fiction that is set in a very specific place and time, and I really enjoyed his novel "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" in spite of the problems with authenticity which will gnaw away at any readers not willing to suspend their disbelief; it is the sheer simplicity of that work that makes it such a success but the same cannot be said of "The House of Special Purpose".
The narrator is Georgy Jachmenev, who, when the story begins is a fifteen years old peasant. Georgy saves the life of a member of the Russian royal family, however, in doing so he also betrays his best friend. His reward for his heroic act is to join the royal household, as bodyguard and companion to eleven year old Alexei, the Tsar's son; this means leaving his family and going to live in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Despite hostility from some of the other guards, Georgy starts to settle into his new life but gradually he becomes aware of the rumblings of discontent in some parts of society; the Tsar is forced to take action and orders Georgy to accompany him on a doomed train ride. Georgy knows that all is not well but couldn't for a moment imagine what will happen next.
The story is told as a series of flashbacks but not chronologically; this means that the story is revealed in random fragments, a bit like pulling jigsaw pieces from a bag and gradually putting together the picture. It's is the novel's saving grace that the story is told in this way because the utterly ridiculous "secret" of the story, that which the author would have us believe he is slowly leading us to, is blatantly obvious from very early on. The element that kept me reading when I knew pretty much where we were heading was not "what?" but "how?"
Boyne is a first rate story teller. For all the irritations of improbable dialogue (would a two year old really ask "Father, whose present is the best, mine or mother's?") and historical inaccuracy, this is an immensely readable book that kept me gripped from start to finish; admittedly, I did persevere partly because I couldn't quite believe that the author was trying to get away with such a ridiculous premise. More interesting to me than the events of the Russian revolution was the portrait of a marriage repeatedly put under renewed strain. As Georgy starts his story he explains that Zoya, his wife, is in hospital enduring the final stages of cancer; we learn that when she was diagnosed, Zoya chose not to undergo some of the more invasive treatments but bore her illness almost like suffering a justified punishment. As the story progresses we learn of the death in a road accident of their only daughter; of an affair Zoya had with a colleague; of a life seemingly lived without pleasure. Throughout all this Georgy has remained doggedly loyal to this strange woman.
At 496 pages it's a long book but Boyne is not verbose; on the contrary he can depict memorable scenes with enviable economy but there are simply too many that are not essential to the story. The scene where Georgy, newly arrived at the Winter Palace, sits alone in a dark corridor as instructed, unsure exactly what awaits him, is eerie and full of foreboding. A chapter which recounts the couple's arrival in Paris is superbly evocative, conjuring up exciting images of a city recovering from war, a city filled with people from all over Europe, many looking to start new lives. A short subplot involving a young married couple that Zoya and Georgy become close friends with is a dramatic and page turning aside but could easily have been omitted as a minor concession to brevity. This is just one example of Boyne's tendency to over-egg his pudding, using several examples when one or two would suffice.
"The House of Special Purpose" (the title's gloomy significance is revealed towards the end of the book) is not a bad book but I found it personally unsatisfying. If you don't care too much for historical accuracy, you might be able to overlook those particular short-comings but some serious issues with clumsy story telling cast a shadow even more gloomy than the fate of the Romanovs.
For my dad's birthday, I struggled for some time wondering what to buy him (how hard are men to buy for?) before eventually deciding to make a trip to the book store. Remembering he had been a fan of 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' by John Boyne, I decided to browse what else the author had written and came across a few novels.
Reading the blurb on the back of a few novels, this one - a work of fiction based loosely on real historical events - stood out to me as something he may like, so I decided to buy it. After having given it to my dad he told me it was, "Very good but really, really sad" and lent it to me to read. To be honest, I wasn't that sure if I would like it, not being a huge fan of historical novels, however, being an avid reader, I decided to give it a go, and found that I was quite glad I did.
In 1915, in a little town in Russia, a sixteen year old boy - Georgy Jachmenev - unintentionally saves the life of the cousin of the Tsar. Hailed as a hero, he is whisked away from his home to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, where he is to work as a companion and bodyguard for the Tsar's young son, Alexei Romanov.
Living amongst the Romanovs - the Tsar Nicholas II, the Tsaritsa Alexandra and their five children - Georgy finds himself a fish out of water as he becomes an unexpected participant in controversial dealings with the government, scandalous meetings with Rasputin, and a surprising love story.
Many years later, as an old man living in London, Georgy reflects on his past life; the family he grew to love, the country he turned his back on and the tragic story of the Romanovs that remains with him today. As he faces the end of his life with his beloved wife, Zoya, Georgy is overwhelmed with memories of tragedy and love, as he unravels the tale of how he got to where is today, and unveils the secrets that have surrounded his life to this day.
WHAT I LIKED
When I first picked up this book to read, I was a little bit daunted as, this being "a novel of the Romanovs" - as the book cites it to be on the front cover - I thought it would be packed with politics and, consequently, quite heavy and difficult to read. Not knowing anything about the political history of Russia, I wondered whether it would be a bit over my head. However, I soon discovered that this was not the case.
Although the novel obviously tells the story of a controversial time in Russia, Boyne focuses more on Georgy's personal feelings towards the Romanov family than the political side of things; crafting an intimate account that is that is centrally about family and love. Rather than detailing what is happening outside of the Tsar's home too heavily, Boyne focuses instead on Georgy's experiences and on the universal feelings of heartbreak and love, creating a romantic and moving novel that is remarkably down to earth and easy to empathise with, despite its grand setting.
Like the themes of the book, Boyne's language is also notably beautiful yet simple to follow at the same time. Boyne is undoubtedly a skilful writer, who crafts his characters well, presents interesting concepts and ideas and expresses himself eloquently with beautiful language and phrasing, yet at the same time he writes simply. He doesn't use his language to show off, but rather to tell a story, and this makes the novel extremely easy and enjoyable to read. Likewise, he describes things really effectively yet does not go overboard with description, which was something that I liked about the novel.
Boyne is also good at creating characters and bringing them alive. Although I didn't always like his characters (see below) they still seemed very real and authentic to me. Georgy, particularly, had a really strong, authentic narrative voice; I could sense his tiredness, his sadness and the weight on his shoulders, and I could completely imagine this story being told by a Russian man in his seventies, rather than an Irish one in his thirties.
I also think that Boyne's choice of format for the novel is quite effective for the most part, as it was quite interesting to read a novel from Georgy's perspective as an old man looking back at the near past, the further past, and also right the way back to when he was a young boy. You get a full look at his life in its many parts, and this makes the story all the more compelling - to find out how Georgy got from where he was to where he is now - and moving (as you really get to know Georgy as a character and the tragedy he has faced).
One surprising thing that I did find that I liked about this novel is that I found that I actually enjoyed the historical story and discovering what had happened in Russia involving the Romanovs and the Bolshevik government. I have never really been that interested in history and knew absolutely nothing about the history of Russia (I had never even heard of a Tsar), but I found it really interesting to read about.
In fact, after finishing the novel, I actually felt compelled to do a bit of research in to Russian history and the fascinating true story of the Romanovs, as found it really compelling and intriguing. Although this is a very fictionalised account of life at that time (and has been criticised for its overuse of Boyne's creative license), and although the picture painted here is probably quite inaccurate in many ways, I still enjoyed getting a very small glimpse into another place and time that I knew absolutely nothing about.
Overall, this is an interesting, creative and compelling novel, however what pulls it all together and makes it so successful, much like with 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas', is Boyne's ability to move the reader. It is the sadness of the novel, its slightly tragic nature, that actually makes it so satisfying to read. It is an emotive, moving and romantic novel which is extremely sad, but actually in a very effective way.
WHAT I DISLIKED
I discovered, only after reading this book, that there was a lot of criticism hurled at the novel for being historically inaccurate. This seemed to be the main criticism of this work of fiction - that it was, in fact, fiction. However, while I feel that I should mention this, as it may be a disadvantage for some, I will say that this is not one of the things that I disliked about the novel. In fact, it didn't bother me at all.
I suppose if you are very interested and knowledgeable about Russian history and are reading the book for this reason then you may feel let down, but I think it is best to approach the novel simply as a piece of fiction, which is what it is. I actually think with this book you have an advantage if you know absolutely nothing about the Romanovs and Russian history (like I did) as it not only means you are mostly unaware that it is historically inaccurate, but it makes the story a lot more intriguing and surprising.
Along with the criticism about this novel being historically inaccurate, another thing that this novel has widely been criticised for is that, in a similar vein to the criticism of the movie 'Titanic', aspects of the novel have been dubbed unrealistic or, in fact, impossible. While I see the point here, and it is something I pondered on myself, again this didn't really bother me. I believe this is one of those times where you need to suspend disbelief to enjoy an otherwise good story, however if you think this would ruin the novel for you I advise you to give it a miss. However, as I say, this is not something that bothered me personally.
Now, on to the main thing that did bother me about this novel: the characters. As I mentioned earlier, Boyne is good at creating characters that seem real and authentic. However these characters, at least in my opinion, are very difficult to sympathise or empathise with. Basically, I didn't find them very likeable at all.
Although a few flaws in a character can be quite compelling, I just felt that the main characters in this novel (and not just including the Tsar and his family, for who this is may be understandable) were extremely self centred and selfish. I found Zoya particularly hard to empathise with. Although her behaviour is perhaps explained a lot by her tragic past, I still (perhaps unfairly) couldn't warm to her, finding her cold and unfeeling towards her husband, seemingly punishing him for everything that was not his fault, giving no thought to how her actions might make him feel.
I also found it hard to fully sympathise with Georgy. Although he obviously adores his wife and is shown to be selfless in his attitude towards both her and the Romanovs, in every other way I found him utterly selfish. Although he is presented in a sympathetic light, I found it hard to buy his caring, loyal, selfless act when he showed such little loyalty or love towards his own family, who clearly see as much tragedy, if not more so, than the Romanovs. I basically couldn't warm to either if the central characters, which was my main issue with the novel.
I also felt that at times - while it was undoubtedly a good idea in theory and, at times, in practise - the format of the novel was a little bit complicated and hard to follow, with the plot jumping back and forth too much, to this place and that place, so that you never quite knew where you were.
I think that the format would have been easier to follow if Boyne had missed out some periods of Georgy's life, however, as I think that the main problem was that he simply tried to squeeze too much in. This made the novel quite hard to follow in itself as there was so much squeezed in to the novel that some things were really skimmed over, some threads were hard to follow and not fully developed (such as some of Georgy and Zoya's marital troubles and the brief introduction of Georgy's mysterious second job) and some characters were also completely skimmed over and never really fleshed out.
I just felt like there were lots of things included in the novel that didn't really need to be there and which in fact detracted from the quality of the novel. It basically felt to me like Boyne included every single detail he could think of and then didn't bother to edit it down. It also felt that the ending - which could have been one of the most significant and moving parts of the novel - was quite rushed, as though Boyne had included so many other pointless details that he simply ran out of time or energy to give the novel the ending it deserved.
A final thing that I will say about the novel is that, although the novel on the whole is beautifully and insightfully written, and although (despite it apparently being historically inaccurate) Boyne has clearly done some research into the big things, he does make the occasional mistake when it comes to everyday details.
For instance, he seems to be a bit confused about young people and what is realistic dialogue for them. His one year old daughter, for instance, poses an amazingly articulate question at one point that seems far too advanced for a child who is apparently still "uncertain on her legs", asking, "Father... Whose present is the best, mine or Mother's?" Meanwhile, near the end of the novel Alexi, at one month away from fourteen, could be mistaken for a five year old based on the description of his actions and dialogue, and is certainly not like any fourteen year old boy I have ever encountered!
I just felt that with trying to squeeze so much detail and plot into the novel, some of the more minor details, such as basic human behaviour and dialogue, have been neglected and have not been paid as much attention to or researched thoroughly. I felt that, although on the whole I really enjoyed this novel, it could have perhaps done with a final edit simply to smooth over some things, tidy up some details, and cut out some irrelevant threads of plot.
Those who aren't well-versed in Russian history, or those who can quite happily suspend their disbelief.
You are in the mood for an easy to read but absorbing novel.
READ IF YOU LIKED...
'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas', or the movie 'Titanic' (a similarly unlikely, tragic and romantic tale based loosely on history and told from the point of view of an elderly person looking back on their life and an historical event).
IF IT WERE FOOD IT WOULD BE...
Borscht - thick, substantial, and very Russian. A traditional and popular format, but not to everybody's taste.
IF IT WERE A COLOUR IT WOULD BE...
Grey. Foggy and vague in detail at times, exploring a political grey area, and shrouded by a cloud of misery and depression, the book is an emotive mix of both lightness and dark times.
"The characters in my memory emerged from their hidden places and looked towards the skies, their hands outstretched, smiling at each other, together once again, wishing that these moments might never end and the future might never come."
MARKS OUT OF 10 FOR:
WRITING STYLE - 7
OVERALL BOOK - 7
Georgy Jachmenev is a young, 16 year old Russian boy. During 1915, in a small village called Kashin, Georgy rather bravely (or some may think stupidly) steps in front of an assassin's bullet, saving the Grand Duke Nicholas Nicolaievich (a cousin of Tsar Nicholas II). As a reward for his heroic gesture, Georgy has been charged with looking after the Tsar's son, young Alexei. From here on his life is about to change, where he will see and travel beyond his previous limited boundaries, be introduced into a world of wealth, find love and become caught up in the countries political turmoil.
Jumping sixty five years we meet an old Georgy, based in England, who has been happily married to his true love, Zoya for over sixty years. From Zoya's hospital room, Georgy starts to revisit his past and with this he brings back many significant memories.
The House of Special Purpose is written by John Boyne, the author famous for The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas. Once again, he has written his novel based (loosely) around historical occurrences. In this novel, the core of the story is based on the Russian Imperial Family, the Romanovs and their demise as the Bolshevik take control. However, it also follows Georgy's life, working from 1981, as a man in his eighties, backwards to when he was working for the Imperial Family.
This point leads on to how the book was formatted. I really enjoyed how Boyne has structured the novel. The first chapter is about an eighty year old Georgy (1981), the second travels back to the Imperial times (1916). From here it alternates between Georgy's post Imperial life, with each of these chapters going back in time (1979, 1970, 1953 as examples) and his time with the Imperial family, until eventually the story becomes one in 1918, and everything is answered. Now, this may seem confusing, but it is what makes the book, as you are following two different stories, via Georgy's flashbacks, and as each chapter ends you want to read more to find out what is going to happen next.
I rather liked Georgy. He was a quiet, loyal person who was definitely a man of habit. His life, whilst in exile, was one of routine, which was the complete opposite to his younger life as a guard and escapee. There are various other characters which were prominent in Georgy's life, including the Tsar's family and Rasputin. I felt a need to get to know these character's in greater detail, but unfortunately this just did not happen. Rasputin was a real nasty guy, who could have given the novel a lot more juicy happenings along with thrilling episodes.
The novel is a work of fiction, but Boyne has used historical events to develop his story. I was a little disappointed, as much of the historical content was not actually what happened in reality. Boyne seemed to be writing an alternative, lets say imaginary, demise of the Romanovs and the Imperial era. It was as if Boyne wrote about what he wished would have happened to the Imperial Family. For me, much of the novel was based on Imperial Russia, and I would have enjoyed it far more it the historical content was accurate. It is also quite a difficult subject to write a novel on, as we all know the eventual outcome. What he accomplished with The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas he has failed to do with this novel.
The rest of the book is super, following Georgy's life, sharing his emotions and adventures. Much of his life was spent looking over his shoulder as he was living in exile. Throughout the novel there is an ongoing beautiful love story, which is predictable but still enjoyable. It is a marriage which has survived against all odds, including tragedy, temptation and the loss of loved ones.
It is a lovely story which is written well, both in style and format. In general, it is easy to read, and not too taxing, which I found to be great escapism. But, Boyne has let it down, by swaying away from the actual truth which was always a niggle in the back of my mind. It could have been so much better, and far more thrilling, with accurate historical data. Overall I did enjoy the actual story, and did get lost in Georgy's life tales, despite it being fairly predictable.
The House of Special Purpose is published by Black Swan
Number of pages 428 (large paper book)