The House of Special Purpose: A Novel by the Author of The Heart's Invisible Furies

The House of Special Purpose: A Novel by the Author of The Heart's Invisible Furies

by John Boyne

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Overview

From the author of The Absolutist, a propulsive novel of the Russian Revolution and the fate of the Romanovs.
 
Part love story, part historical epic, part tragedy, The House of Special Purpose illuminates 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, to the Winter Palace of the czar, in the early twentieth century—a time of change, threat, and bloody revolution. As Georgy overturns the most painful stone of all, we uncover the story of the house of special purpose.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Boyne reworks perennial rumors that Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Russia’s last czar, escaped the Bolshevik firing squad that killed her family, in an overstuffed romantic novel elevated by the author’s prose gifts but fatally lacking in credibility. Early chapters involving narrator Georgy Daniilovich Jachmenev’s boyhood in a tiny Russian village are convincing, but when he’s unexpectedly chosen as a companion for the imperial heir, Alexei, the plot veers into highly improbable territory. On Georgy’s first day in St. Petersburg, he locks eyes with the 15-year-old Anastasia, feeling an immediate connection to her; glimpses Alexandra, the czar’s wife, privately conferring with her evil mentor, Rasputin; and enjoys an intimate chat with Nicholas II himself, who chooses to tell an uneducated 16-year-old country boy about his heavy responsibilities. These flashbacks alternate with Georgy’s life in London, where he and his wife, Zoya, have lived for two decades after fleeing the Russian Revolution. Readers who know little about Russian history may find this novel suspenseful, but others will be better off with Boyne’s 2012 novel, The Absolutist, which sustains a taut, unsentimental plot without the romantic excess that mars this effort. Agent: Bonnie Nadell, Frederick Hill Bonnie Nadell Agency. (Apr.)

From the Publisher

John Boyne’s novel is a tour de force, at once epic and intimate, and above all a marvelous read.” —John Banville, author of Ancient Light and The Sea, winner of the Booker Prize

"Narrator Georgy Daniilovich Jachmenev reviews his long life, from being household of Czar Nicholas II to his post-retirement years in London...Boyne re-creates both Georgy’s personal life and the life of pre-Revolutionary Russia with astonishing density and power." —Kirkus (starred review)

"[Boyne] skillfully evokes the wrenching pain of loss and exile while presenting a tribute to enduring love." —Booklist

“Amazingly researched and vividly written.” —Foreword

“In this richly textured, audaciously imagined alternate history John Boyne chronicles a long and complex marriage forged out of the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. Georgy and Zoya are a memorable pair of lovers, and as this ingeniously structured narrative takes us deeper and deeper into their shared past, our understanding of their unremarkable present is increasingly colored by the extraordinary secrets, regrets and guilt they carry within them.” —Paul Russell, author of The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov

"Readers who enjoy historical fiction will find much to like in Boyne’s creative retelling of this familiar story, as he brings it to life through the eyes of an ordinary young man caught up in extraordinary events beyond his control—events that will change the world forever." —Chapter 16

"Beautifully written, I found it difficult to put the book down. Although the twist that Boyne slowly gives away is easy to figure out, it doesn’t diminish the tale. I found myself totally absorbed by his descriptions of what it was like growing up in Tsarist Russia and during the Bolshevik Revolution. Additionally, his description of what it was like living in London during World War II was hard to stop reading and kept me up very late reading for more than one night."—Bosguy

"
Irish writer John Boyne’s “The House of Special Purpose” is a thrilling historical novel rooted in the Russian revolution and the end of Romanov czars."—StarTribune

"
If you are looking for a page-turning mixture of suspense and betrayal within a well-executed part love story, part historical epic, and part-tragedy, then “The House of Special Purpose” is a book you must not miss"—Killer Nashville

"The House of Special Purpose
is immediately riveting, mysterious, and tense with suspense. It is filled with heartlessness and insensitivity, but – at the same time – great love; it has pain, but incredible joy. The humanity of it will leave you crying at the end of the very first chapter."—Killer Nashville

"
If we were inclined to stalk an author in order to read even his grocery list, Boyne would probably be that author."—A Reader's Respite

"
... Boyne could write about any subject and his lyrical phrasing and subtle wit would make it a lovely experience. And so it is with The House of Special Purpose. His pacing is impeccable and every word (except the word Anastasia, that is) is to be savored and enjoyed."—A Reader's Respite

"
Part historical fiction, part romance and part tragedy, this book is a thrilling look at one of Russia’s most tumultuous eras." —Cecil Daily

"Perfect for historians who love a good novel...Give this book as a gift—and borrow it back." —Aiken Standard

Kirkus Reviews

Narrator Georgy Daniilovich Jachmenev reviews his long life, from being a servant in the household of Czar Nicholas II to his post-retirement years in London. Georgy is the son of a common laborer in the small rural town of Kashin when a political accident radically changes his life. Georgy's friend Kolek Boryavich decides to act on a revolutionary impulse and tries to assassinate Grand Duke Nicholas, cousin of the czar, but in the shock of seeing his friend engage in this violent act, Georgy steps in front of the duke and takes the bullet instead. As a reward for his unintended heroism, Georgy is sent to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to work for Czar Nicholas. As an exuberant adolescent, Georgy becomes a caretaker to Alexei, the 11-year-old hemophiliac son of the czar and heir to the Romanov throne, but he almost loses his position when he takes his charge tree-climbing, for Alexei's health must be preserved at all costs. Georgy's stay at the Winter Palace gets him in contact with the young and winsome Anastasia, with whom he falls desperately in love, as well as with the unsavory Rasputin. Boyne moves us across decades of Georgy's life through reminiscences ranging from the Bolshevik Revolution to his emigration to England (where he gets a job at the British Museum library) to translating messages during World War II (and meeting Churchill in the process) to the loss of his beloved only daughter, Arina, to his troubled but loving marriage to Zoya. Boyne re-creates both Georgy's personal life and the life of pre-Revolutionary Russia with astonishing density and power.

Library Journal

Boyne's (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) latest novel intertwines two love stories with a huge swath of history. A devoted elderly couple, Russian émigrés Georgy and Zoya Jachmenev, reside in late 20th-century London. Zoya is dying of cancer, and as the narrative slips back and forth in time, Georgy, in the more poignant and realistic parts of the novel, recalls his past: the couple's travels to Paris and London, his mysterious work as a translator during the war, and the loss of their daughter. A more remarkable past is also made evident: as a young man, he saved Tsar Nicholas II's brother from an assassin, a twist of fate that catapulted Georgy from his humble village into the tsar's household in the months before the Bolshevik Revolution. While a bodyguard for the tsar's hemophiliac son, he fell in love with Grand Duchess Anastasia. As the reader is swept up in the historical narrative, then yanked back to the more sedate and tragic experiences in London, a question slowly materializes: could Zoya possibly be…? Read it to find out. VERDICT A great book for historical fiction lovers and those who love books about tsarist Russia.—Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590515983
Publisher: Other Press, LLC
Publication date: 04/02/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 478
Sales rank: 280,276
Product dimensions: 5.68(w) x 8.34(h) x 1.28(d)

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Read an Excerpt

1981  
  
My mother and father did not have a happy marriage. Years have passed since I last endured their company, decades, but they pass through my thoughts almost every day for a few moments, no longer than that. A whisper of memory, as light as Zoya’s breath upon my neck as she sleeps by my side at night. As gentle as her lips against my cheek when she kisses me in the first light of morning. I cannot say when they died exactly. I know nothing of their passing other than the natural certainty that they are no longer of this world. But I think of them. I think of them still.
I have always imagined my father, Daniil Vladyavich, dying first. He was already in his early thirties by the time I was born and from what I can recall of him, he was never blessed with good health. I have memories of waking as an infant in our small timber-framed izba in Kashin, in the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, pressing my hands to my tiny ears to repel the sound of his mortality as he choked and coughed and spat his phlegm into the fire burning in our small stove. I think now that he may have had a problem with his lungs. Emphysema, perhaps. It’s difficult to know. There were no doctors to administer to him. No medicines. Nor did he bear his many illnesses with fortitude or grace. When he suffered, we suffered too.
His forehead extended in a grotesque fashion from his head, I remember that also. A great mass of misshapen membrane protruding with smaller distensions on either side of it, the skin stretched taut from hairline to the bridge of his nose, pulling his eyebrows north to give him an expression of permanent disquiet. My older sister, Liska, told me once that it was an accident of birth, an incompetent doctor taking hold of the cranium rather than the shoulders as he emerged into the world, pressing too hard on the soft, not yet solidified bone beneath. Or a lazy midwife, perhaps, careless with another woman’s child. His mother did not live to see the creature she had produced, the deformed baby with his misshapen skull. The experience of giving my father life cost my grandmother her own. This was not unusual then and rarely a cause for grief; it was seen as a balance of nature. Today, it would be unexpected and worthy of litigation. My grandfather took another woman soon after, of course, to rear his young.
When I was a boy, the other children in our village took fright when they saw my father walking along the road toward them, his eyes darting back and forth as he returned home from his farm labors, perhaps, or shaking his fist as he stepped out of a neighbor’s hut after another argument over rubles owed or insults perceived. They had names for him and it excited them to shout these in his direction—they called him Cerberus, after the three-headed hound of Hades, and mocked him by pulling off their kolpaks and pressing their wrists to their foreheads, flapping them maniacally while chanting their war cries. They feared no retribution for behaving like this in front of me, his only son. I was small then and weak. They were not afraid of me. They pulled faces behind his back and spat on the ground in imitation of his habits, and when he turned to cry out like a wounded animal they would scatter, like grain seeds tossed across a field, disappearing into the landscape just as easily. They laughed at him; they thought him terrifying, monstrous, and abhorrent all at once.
Unlike them, I was afraid of my father, for he was liberal with his fists and unrepentant of his violence.
I have no reason to imagine it so, but I picture him returning home some evening shortly after I made my escape from the railway carriage in Pskov on that cold March morning and being set upon by Bolsheviks in retaliation for what I had done. I see myself rushing across the tracks and disappearing into the forest beyond in fear of my life, while he shuffles along the road for home, coughing, hacking, and spitting, unaware that his own is in mortal danger. In my arrogance, I imagine that my disappearance brought great shame upon my family and our small hamlet, a dishonor that demanded retribution. I picture a crowd of young men from the village—in my dreams there are four of them; they are big and ugly and brutal—bearing down upon him with cudgels, dragging him from the street toward the darkness of a high-walled lane in order to murder him without witness. I do not hear him crying out for mercy, that would not have been his way. I see blood on the stones where he lies. I glimpse a hand moving slowly, trembling, the fingers in spasm. And then lying still.
When I think of my mother, Yulia Vladimirovna, I imagine her being called home to God in her own bed a few years later, hungry, exhausted, with my sisters keening by her side. I cannot imagine what hardships she must have faced after my father’s death and I do not like to think of it, for despite the fact that she was a cold woman and betrayed her disappointment in me at every juncture of my childhood, she was my mother nevertheless and such a person is holy. I picture my eldest sister, Asya, placing a small portrait of me in her hands as she clasps them together for the final time in prayer, preparing in solemn penitence to meet her maker. The shroud is gathered to her thin neck, her face is white, her lips a pale shade of periwinkle blue. Asya loved me but envied my escape, I remember that too. She came to find me once and I turned her away. It shames me now to think of this. None of this may have happened, of course. The lives of my mother, my father, and my sisters may have ended differently: happily, tragically, together, apart, in peace, in violence, there is no way for me to know. There was never a moment when I could have returned, never a chance that I could have written to Asya or Liska or even Talya, who might not have remembered her older brother, Georgy, her family’s hero and shame.
To return to them would have put them in danger, put me in danger, put Zoya in danger.
But no matter how many years have passed, I think of them still. There are great stretches of my life that are a mystery to me, decades of work and family, struggle, betrayal, loss, and disappointment that have blended together and are almost impossible to separate, but moments from those years, those early years, linger and resonate in my memory. And if they remain as shadows along the dark corridors of my aging mind, then they are all the more vivid and remarkable for the fact that they can never be forgotten. Even if, soon, I shall be.
It has been more than sixty years since I last laid eyes on any member of my blood family. It’s almost impossible to believe that I have lived to this age, eighty-two, and spent such a small proportion of my given time among them. I was remiss in my duties toward them, although I did not see it like that at the time. For I could no more have changed my destiny than altered the color of my eyes. Circumstances led me from one moment to the next, and the next, and the next, as it does with any man, and I followed each step without question.
And then one day I stopped. And I was old. And they were gone.
Do their bodies remain in a state of decomposition, I wonder, or have they already dissolved and become one with the dust? Does the act of putrefaction take several generations to complete or can it advance at a faster rate, dependent on the age of the body or the conditions of burial? And the speed of corporeal decay, does that depend on the quality of the wood from which one’s coffin is made? The appetite of the soil? The climate? In the past, these are the types of questions that I might have pondered over while distracted from my nighttime reading. Typically, I would have made a note of my query and researched it until a satisfactory answer had been arrived at, but my routines have all fallen apart this year and such investigations seem trivial to me now. Indeed, I have not been to the library for many months, not since before Zoya became ill. I may never go there again.
Most of my life—most of my adult life, that is—has been spent within the tranquil walls of the library at the British Museum. I began my employment there in the early autumn of 1923, shortly after Zoya and I first arrived in London, cold, fearful, certain that we might yet be discovered. I was twenty-four years old at the time and had never known that employment could be so peaceful. It had been five years since I had shed the symbols of my previous life—uniforms, rifles, bombs, explosions—but I remained branded by their memory. Now it was soft cotton suits, filing cabinets, and erudition, a welcome change.
And before London, of course, was Paris, where I developed that interest in books and literature that had first begun in the Blue Library, a curiosity that I hoped to pursue in England. To my eternal good fortune, I noticed an advertisement in The Times for a junior librarian in the British Museum and I applied in person later that day, hat in hand, and was immediately taken in to meet a Mr. Arthur Trevors, my potential new employer.
I can remember the date exactly. August the twelfth. I had just come from the Cathedral of the Dormition and All Saints where I had lit a candle for an old friend, an annual gesture of respect to mark his birthday. For as long as I live, I had promised him all those years ago. It seemed appropriate, somehow, that my new life was to commence on the same day that his own short life had begun.

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