The House of Special Purpose
In this so-called ‘novel of the Romanovs’, John Boyne does what he has done so successfully in his previous novels, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Mutiny on the Bounty. He takes an innocent, in this case Georgy Jachmenev who, as a 17-year-old boy, steps in front of an assassin’s bullet intended for the Tsar’s uncle, and puts him at the heart of a major historical event. Georgy’s heroism catapults him from life as a peasant farmer to a position as companion to the Tsarevich Alexei. The year is 1915, and all too soon, Georgy’s loyalties are put to the ultimate test.
Using a double narrative, in which Georgy looks back over his life while sitting at the bedside of his dying wife with chapters interspersed with the story of his life in St. Petersburg, Boyne unfolds a terrific tale of heroism, endurance and romance. His descriptions of the wanton extravagance of the Romanov court, through the eyes of a boy from the sticks who has rarely had enough to eat in his life, are wonderfully atmospheric, both horrifying and fascinating. He has captured a strong, authentic voice for the older Georgy, both tough and courtly. Not only is the novel a great feat of exciting storytelling but a wise and compassionate reminder that the very old are not anonymous and should not be invisible. When we meet Georgy, he is in his eighties, but though his body is subject to the usual range of aches and pains and failures, his heart is undaunted and his devotion to his wife, Zoya, undimmed by the many hardships and tragedies which they have endured.
Boyne has been criticised for spinning a yarn out of the facts and rumours surrounding the last of the Romanovs, one which is implausible. My response to that – and, I hope, his – is that he is writing fiction, not history, and this is very high quality fiction, gripping, atmospheric and unashamedly romantic.