The House of Special Purpose, By John Boyne

A Romanov saga with too many layers

Reviewed,Christina Hardyment
Thursday 04 June 2009 00:00

John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was a flawless cameo. Through the innocent eyes of the son of a concentration camp superintendant, it brought home the appalling ordinariness of the men and women who carried out the Holocaust. The House of Special Purpose takes a smaller horror, the murder of Tsar Nicolas and his family in 1918, and sets it in a more complex canvas, using an arguably over-ambitious structure of flashbacks.

In 1916, Georgy Jachmenev, the 17-year-old son of a peasant farmer, impulsively steps in front of a bullet intended for the breast of the Tsar's uncle, and finds himself rewarded by the post of personal guardian to the 11-year-old heir to all the Russias, Alexei Romanov. So far, so good, but then the stretchings of imagination come thick and fast.

The Tsar becomes fond of his young man of the people, and allows him to read books from his library. Georgy sees the Tsar's youngest daughter, Anastasia, and falls in love with her; the feeling is mutual. To reveal more would spoil the suspenseful plot, which allows us to witness through Georgy's memory first the rumbles, and then the cataclysm of revolution, and the deaths of the Romanovs.

This past is glimpsed only in fragments. The main part of the book takes place in 1981. Georgy, retired from the British Museum, is caring for his adored but cancer-stricken wife, Zoya, and reflecting on the greatest tragedy of their married life, the accidental death of their only daughter, Anya.

Boyne writes with consummate ease, and is particularly good at drawing the indecently rich world of the pre-revolutionary Romanovs. But as the story lines multiplied and the flashbacks came rapidly, I found myself feeling a little put-upon, as if a manic railwayman was switching the points with demonic energy. The journey was ultimately worth it (if unashamedly fantastical), but a simpler route might have given the tale the enduring resonance that made The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas so unforgettable.

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