The House of Special Purpose, by John Boyne

15798438We need to create a term for characters in novels who find themselves at the crossroads of history. That way, I could use it to describe Georgy Daniilovich Jachmenev. Georgy began his life as a poor muzhik‘s son in a town that is frequently described by the other characters as a shithole. When the tsar’s cousin visits the town on his way to somewhere else, Georgy unexpectedly becomes a hero. The House of Special Purpose, by John Boyne, tells Georgy’s story from that strange, violent day in 1915 to 1981.

Boyne introduces us to Georgy in 1981. Georgy’s wife, Zoya, is dying of cancer and he is not coping well. He begins to think back on their life together. In chapters interwoven with his early life in St. Petersburg during World War I and the beginning of the Russian Revolution, Georgy takes us back to important moments in his married life.

After Georgy saves the tsar’s cousin, he is offered a position in the Leib Guard, as a special bodyguard for the Tsarevich Alexei. Even more dazzling for the muzhik’s son, Tsar Nicholas II takes a liking to him, even treating him as a confidant from time to time. On his first day in St. Petersburg, Georgy meets the girl who he instantly falls in love with. It’s only later that he learns that she’s the Grand Duchess Anastasia. These parts of the book move forward in time, until they meet his future selves recollections in 1918.

Young Georgy is a naïf, even as an old man. Because he lived in the same bubble as the Russian royals, he is broadsided by the revolution—almost more surprised than the Romanovs were. He never really loses that naiveté, He hate to confront hard truths. Georgy can be a man of action when he needs to be, but for the most part, he’s just coping with what the world throws at him.

Even though our narrator keeps his secrets until near the end of The House of Special Purpose, it’s not hard to work out just what’s going on with Georgy and Zoya (though I won’t spoil the secret here for future readers). I found this book to be a skillful blend of marriage memoir and historical fiction. The House of Special Purpose is as much a sensitive portrait of two people who love each other and their ups and downs as a couple as it is a chance to peer into history with Georgy as our eyes.


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