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I am fascinated by true life murder mysteries that go unsolved for a long time. Murders and killings happen everyday but not unsolved ones. One of the most famous historical murder mysteries was that of the Romanovs of Russia. Their family of seven, consisting of five children, the Tsar and the Tsarina were shot dead point blank in 1918 by the Bolsheviks and buried. When the bodies were discovered only five skeletons were unearthed and the mystery of what happened to the other two members, two of the children to be precise, remained unresolved until two years ago. I will come to that a little later. For now, the book I just finished reading called The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne is a fictionalized, fly-on-the-wall account of the last days of the Russian monarchy.
Here is the brief from Google Books:
Part love story, part historical epic, part tragedy,The House of Special Purposeilluminates 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 in the early 20th century, to the Winter Palace of the Tsar. A time of change, threat and bloody revolution. And as Georgy overturns the most painful stone of all, we uncover the story of the house of special purpose.
The narrator is Georgy Daniilovich. Through him Boyne spreads out two parallel stories, which of course meet in the end in a rather surprising (to me) climax. The chapters alternate between Georgy’s life with the Romanovs as Alexei, the Tsar’s son’s bodyguard and his life in London later on. His life with the Romanovs is richly detailed with descriptions of the palace and the insulated life within. Georgy is humbled by its riches but brave enough to fall in love with Anastasia, the Tsar’s daughter. He spends his days in the pleasant routines of the palace, away from the grim realities of poverty and discontentment outside, which is what finally, leads to the revolution.
Boyne is a deft writer possessing a supremely fantastic skill of engaging the reader. Georgy’s days in the palace and his life in London are beautifully enmeshed. Apart from following Russian history on the side, Boyne outlines the difficulties of being an émigré in a foreign land particularly during World War II. The insults, the suspicious looks and the disappointments are many for a foreigner.
On another plane, Boyne tells the story of a marriage, touchingly portraying the ups and downs, the love and the problems that arise within. Georgy and his wife undergo tests of fire during their married life but they emerge strong. It’s beautiful the way Boyne puts together pieces and moments of their life, never rambling but always speaking to us as a confidante.
Now, I was more captivated by the way he had woven a story around the Romanovs. As I mentioned before, the mystery of the two missing bodies was solved only recently. In the years after the Romanovs’ murder, numerous people claiming to be Anastasia, one of the missing children, came forward. Of them the most famous was Anna Anderson, who inspired huge debates and criticisms among the general public and historians alike because of her stunning likeness to the real Anastasia.
Boyne superbly intertwines facts and fiction together to create an unputdownable book. The timelines are wrought linearly yet featuring a back and forth motion. While Georgy’s Russian experiences move from the past to the present his life in London goes in the reverse manner, and both meet at a certain point. Some reviewers have pointed out that his historical placements are inaccurate in many places in the book. And some others have commented on how the ending was pretty much guessable somewhat early in the book, though I didn’t. Also, I found that at times he stretches the fantastical a bit over the top. Particularly the episode in which Georgy comes face to face with Churchill, I thought, was too much strain on the suspension of disbelief.
But I will not deny that Boyne can spin a yarn and how! I was on the edge many times and it’s no wonder that I finished the book so fast. Just put aside the comb that picks out a few errors and just give in to the pleasure of reading a Boyne. It may not be as gripping as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or Crippen, both of which absolutely held me in their thrall. Nevertheless, I would definitely recommend an audience with the Tsar, a walk through London and a visit to The House of Special Purpose. And yes, I still remain a Boyne fan.
Verdict: Enjoy Boyne’s splendid writing
Recommended extra reading:
This website here has some excellent information and pictures of the Ipatiev House, also known as The House of Special Purpose, where the Romanovs were imprisoned by Bolsheviks and shot dead.
Read more about Anna Anderson the most famous of all the people who claimed to be one of the missing children.