The House Of Special Purpose, by John Boyne (Random House)

A boy intercepts an assassin’s bullet in pre-revolutionary Russia, saving the life a cousin to the Tsar. More than sixty years later, that same boy maintains vigil at his dying wife’s bedside, reflecting on how this unthinking, dubiously heroic act transformed his own life.  The book jumps chronologically between past and present, each chapter filling a gap until the picture is complete. 

Whisked from his peasant home, the boy is sent to join those assigned to protect the family of the most powerful and possibly most hated man in all Russia, Tsar Nicholas II. The story of this novel follows its central character and narrator to St Petersburgh, where he sees at first-hand the doomed Romanovs and their entourage, including Rasputin, the charismatic monk who wielded great influence over the Tsarina. Most of what I know about early twentieth-century Russia I gleaned from patchy fifth-form history lessons, and an old Boney M song taught me that Rasputin was Russia’s Greatest Love Machine. So this novel was for me in some respects a catch-up on the period, not to mention a corrective to Boney M (though I suspect historical accuracy is neither book nor song’s strong suit). The “house of special purpose” is where the Tsar’s family were held prisoner before they were murdered by the Bolsheviks.

The peasant boy, Georgy Jachmanev, survives the revolution, and after the First World War he moves to Paris, then to London during the Blitz, then to Finland… so far, so epic.

Or would be epic, if it weren’t for so many contrived plot turns, and so much clunky exposition. “The experience of being Russian in London between 1939 and 1945 was not an easy one,” Georgy intones, as if it were a halcyon experience for anyone else. This is one of countless sentences that a more scrupulous editor would have expunged. The wheels and cogs of a Grand Narrative creak and grind as the novel toils towards a revelation that astute readers will have cottoned on to much earlier.

John Boyne is the author of several novels, most notably The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. This new novel is more ambitious in its narrative scope, but disappointing in its execution: it promises much, but doesn’t deliver. It’s a sweeping historical yarn-cum-love story, a kind of Doctor Zhivago for Richard and Judy. In fact, it’s an example of a newish kind of book – The Kite Runner and Birdsong are others – that almost seems written for book clubs, and I had the disconcerting feeling, as I turned the pages, that I’d read it not once but several times before.

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets