Refugees from rebellion

2009-08-26 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

The House of Special Purpose

John Boyne

Doubleday

JOHN Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was an extraordinary, ­disturbing short novel that took the Holocaust as its central theme and wove a strange, compelling, domestic fiction around it. Now, with The House of Special Purpose, he has moved his attention to the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Romanov dynasty. But the spareness and brevity which were part of the power of the earlier novel have gone.

The story opens in 1981, with Georgy Jachmenev facing the death of his wife, Zoya, in a London hospital. They are Russians, and have lived in the British capital since between the two world wars of the 20th century, keeping to themselves, avoiding even other Russian refugees. Slowly Boyne ­unfolds their stories in a series of flashbacks which tell how Georgy, a peasant youth in Russia, catches the eye of the court and is made a bodyguard to Tsarevitch Alexei, the haemophiliac son of the Tsar.

World War 1 turns the rumbling discontent in Russia into open rebellion, and Georgy finds himself at the centre of momentous events, ­including the murder of Rasputin and the abdication of the Tsar.

I don’t want to give too much away here, although Boyne does signal where the plot is heading a little too obviously: the great surprise didn’t surprise me greatly. And somehow, the rise and rise of Georgy didn’t ring quite true either. It is all a little too improbable and too pat, although it is always readable. Not bad if you want to while away a wet afternoon or two, but not much more than that.

Margaret von Klemperer

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