Sunday, 11 September 2011

The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne

I just read the Norwegian edition of The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne, successful author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (which I haven't read). This is apparently Boyne's first "adult" book, and I have to say he's done a great job at this novel!

The novel is about Georgy, the peasant youth who suddenly finds his own situation elevated to that of bodyguard of Alexei Romanov, the heir to the Russian throne. The country is at war, though, and in the midst of this, Georgy soon has to battle with his own loyalty to the throne, and the increasing internal Bolshevik threat. For Georgy the choice is simple, though: he is in love with the Emperor's youngest daughter Anastasia, and he will do anything to protect her.

The narrative is split in two. On the one hand we have the story of Georgy as a young man serving the Russian throne and trying to keep his relationship to Anastasia a secret from her parents. On the other hand we have Georgy's present story (1981). He is now an old man living in exile in London with his wife Zoya, who is dying of cancer. The story swaps between the "youth Georgy's" story, and "old Georgy's" story. Whilst the events revealed of "youth Georgy's" story follow a chronological sequence, the events of "old Georgy's" story gradually go backwards in time, so that at the end of the novel, the two stories meet, before finally reaching a climax in the present tense. This narrative technique keeps the suspence longer. In "old Georgy's" story, he might refer to an event that has happened, but it's only later, as he returns to the time of the event that the reader fully grasps why the event turned out to be so important. For instance we learn that Georgy and Zoya lived in Paris for a while, but that they left because of what happened to a friend of theirs. What exactly it was that happened is only revealed when the story has regressed so far back in time that they are back in Paris once more.

I often find that reading is a learning experience. I have to admit that I know very little of the Russian Romanov dynasty and the Russian revolution. But in reading this novel I became quite interested in learning more. So I did some research whilst I was still reading it, and learned that the whole royal family were killed during the revolution, including Anastasia, who Georgy loves. So then comes the mystery of Georgy's wife Zoya, who could only be Anastasia, and the question of how she came to survive. Whilst we do get an answer to that question, some questions remain shrouded in mystery at the close of the novel.

I really loved The House of Special Purpose. The complexity of the narrative made it more interesting. The story of the poor peasant who finds himself in the lap of luxury is fairy-tale like and fascinating, and Georgy's experience of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg makes it accessible to the reader. The story of love and loyalty through the ages is beautiful and touching. I also love that Georgy is so human in his complexity. He embodies both bravery and cowardice, strength and weakness at the same time, and the dichotomy between power and helplessness is very present in him, as well as working as a sort of theme in the story as a whole. This is visible through how the Emperor, who supposedly was chosen by God, is eventually rendered powerless to protect his family against the Bolsheviks.

This is also a story of loss. We learn that Zoya and Georgy have a daughter who passes away, leaving her young son Michael behind. Whereas Zoya and Georgy grieve the loss of their daughter, Michael has to learn to live without his mother. And, when Zoya is diagnosed with cancer, Georgy has to start preparing himself for a life of solitude. The loss of your country (and your identity) through exile is also a strong presence in the story. Zoya and Georgy's visit to Russia later in their life proves the thesis "you can't go home again".

The House of Special Purpose is well-written and well composed. You come to really care for the main protagonists and you believe in their story. If you're easily moved, like I am, be sure to be armed with Kleenex, at least for the final pages.

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