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The House of Special Purpose - John Boyne

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

WITHOUT a doubt John Boyne has a gift for story telling. But what makes his work so compelling is his use of a central fictional character to bring a controversial and well documented historical event to life – something we’ve already seen in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Mutiny on the Bounty.

In The House of Special Purpose that character is Georgy Jachmenev, the moment in time the last days of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, in particular, the youngest daughter Anastasia, whose fate remains one of the 20th century’s biggest mysteries.

It’s a story that begins in 1915, when 16-year-old Georgy, the son of a humble farmer, steps in front of a bullet intended for the Tsar’s cousin, the Grand Duke Nicholas Nicolaievich. Proclaimed a hero, Georgy is rewarded with the position of bodyguard to the Tsar’s only son Alexei, a move that takes him from his poverty stricken village to the splendours of St Petersburg, where he meets and falls in love with Anastasia.

But Georgy marries Zoya, who decades after the Tsar’s brutal and untimely death, is dying of cancer.

Although Boyne’s style is simple in that it’s uncluttered by unnecessary rhetoric (here meaning exaggerated language), he cleverly transports the reader into the world inhabited by Georgy and Zoya – be they in St Petersbugh, London, Finland or Paris.

Not that his narrative is lacking in imagery as Zoya’s view of the changing face of Russia – ‘as a sort of dying pomegranite’ – demonstrates only too well. His perception of the human condition – of old age, for instance – is also apparent when, for example, the elderly Georgy wistfully compares his mirror image with the face of his youth. And here we must remember that Boyne (born in 1971) is still a relatively young man.

The House of Special Purpose is most definitely a page-turner, not least because the story unfolds through different time zones rather than in chronological order, thereby repeatedly leaving unanswered questions and the reader begging for more.

There are, I believe, a number of historical inaccuracies (I’m no historian) but Boyne’s premise is so far beyond the realms of possibility that it doesn’t really matter, providing, of course, you take it for what it is – a work of fiction. As such, it’s a compelling read that might well have you reaching for the history books or travelling to St Petersbugh to view for yourself the magnificent Winter Palace.