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Sunday, April 7, 2013

"The House of Special Purpose" by John Boyne (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"Part love story, part historical epic, part tragedy, The House of Special Purpose illuminates an empire at the end of its reign. Eighty-year-old Georgy Jachmenev is haunted by his past—a past of death, suffering, and scandal that will stay with him until the end of his days. Living in England with his beloved wife, Zoya, Georgy prepares to make one final journey back to the Russia he once knew and loved, the Russia that both destroyed and defined him. As Georgy remembers days gone by, we are transported to St. Petersburg, to the Winter Palace of the czar, in the early twentieth century—a time of change, threat, and bloody revolution. As Georgy overturns the most painful stone of all, we uncover the story of the house of special purpose."

The House of Special Purpose is an unexpectedly compelling read that mixes well trodden ground - last days of the Tsarist Regime, Rasputin, the murder of Nicholas II the last Tsar and his family - with a well thought narrative structure that presents snippets from the future life of two survivors of the times.

The novel is narrated by Georgy Jachmenev, son of a muzhik from an imperial estate who distinguishes himself by saving the life of an Imperial Duke and gets appointed as bodyguard to the Tsar and his family, in particular to the young, sick and fragile Tsarevich Aleksei.

In the present of the storyline in 1981, 80+ year old Georgy is living in London after a lifetime of work for the British Museum and he is attending his lifelong partner and wife of 60+ years, Zoya who is terminally ill of cancer, while being consoled by his
grandson who is his single surviving relative.

The narration goes back in time in flashes and snippets of the important moments in the life of the couple as well as forward in time from Georgy's birth to his becoming a member of the Tsar's Guard and finally to his illicit love affair with the youngest of the Tsar's daughters, Grand Duchess Anastasia to whom he have sworn eternal fidelity; and of course the question occurs, who is Zoya?

While we get an early answer that they had met on a three day nightmarish train ride from Siberia in 1918 escaping from the Bolsheviks, things are slowly revealed...

Excellent writing and a book that I opened it more to take a look at than seriously expecting to actually read it but that I could not really put it down after I started it; emotional, haunting and with two great characters who survive the wreck of an era and make themselves a life in exile while still being followed by the brutal past.

Highly recommended.


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