A Review: The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne
I've always been very interested in Russian history, but I think I've stated this fact again and again. I mentioned it when I reviewed Richard Massie's Catherine the Great, Kathryn Harrison's Enchantments, and Rebecca Makkai's The Borrower. I'm sure there's more posts than these. If I can't go anytime soon, I'll read about it and dream about it. When I read the plot summary of this one I was immediately drawn to the promise of adventure and the descriptions of Russia's beauty. Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is a new writer to me, so I didn't really know what to expect. I can say I was impressed and will definitely be looking out for future work.
Daniil Jachmenev is taken from the small Russian town of Kashin before he has time to realize what has happened. Saying goodbye to his family, whom he'll never see again, he is hurriedly transported to the Winter Palace to begin work as a bodyguard and companion to the young Tsarevitch, Alexei, who suffers from hemophilia. All seems to be well until revolution forces Nicolas II to abdicate and move his family to a spot known as the house of special purpose. Removed from his duties, Daniil does whatever he can to locate the Romanov family and see his beloved Anastasia (the Tsar's youngest daughter). Sixty years later, Daniil is living in England, spending his days as an employee of the British Library, and married to the woman he fled Russia with all those years ago. Desiring to visit to his homeland one last time, Daniil must face the tragic event that changed his life forever and decide if it's safe to return.
The novel is told from Daniil's perspective, moving between his life in the palace, and that of a reflective 80-year-old man who's survived difficult circumstances. The most appealing quality of the title was that Boyne really does a superb job of offering authentic voices during the two stages of Daniil's life. The reader sees his character move from young man, with a fiery temperament and juvenile desires, to a responsible older man, engaged in serious reflection. I find that many titles using this method generally can't believably pull off the same character at two very different times of their life.
The novel isn't short, and I found that Boyne's descriptions were beautiful, yet long-winded. The story went on and on, offering every detail of Daniil's current life, with short glimpses of his life at the Winter Palace, to the point that I thought he might not ever actually address the event that forced him to leave Russia in the first place. While I guessed the ending of the story far before it was actually revealed, I was anticipating a conclusion with a little more bang. It seemed to build and build, but the climax just didn't deliver. Furthermore, the ending really requires a serious ability to suspend disbelief, which made it a little less enjoyable for me. There were many moments that seemed highly unlikely that occurred so perfectly as to keep the story afloat.
While I certainly had my issues with this title, I won't swear Boyne off forever. I thought his characters were well-developed, and his subject interesting. I suggest reading an excerpt to decide if it's a title for you.
I received a copy of this title from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
You can expect to see this novel in stores on April 2, 2013. Listen to the author read an excerpt, or pre-order a copy.
Interview with the author available at Shelf Awareness.