Georgy Jachmenev lives in Kashin, a poor farming community in Russia. While Georgy’s father, Daniil, constantly bullies and berates his son, Georgy’s best friend, Kolek, has a father, Borys, who treats his son like a king. Daniil and Borys differ in another way. Daniil is a patriot, loyal to Tsar Nicholas II, while Borys is a revolutionary, looking forward to the day when “Russians will not stand to be ruled over by such a family for much longer.”
When the village learns that the tsar’s cousin, the Grand Duke Nicholas Nicolaievich, will be passing through Kashin with his troops on the way to St. Petersburg, Daniil is thrilled, while Borys is outraged. When the day comes, Georgy stands with his family and is alarmed when he spies Kolek raise a pistol, intending to shoot the grand duke. Hoping to stop his friend from committing such a crime, Georgy leaps and takes the bullet preventing the assassination. Georgy is awarded a position in the Winter Palace as guard and companion to Tsarevich Alexei, the young boy who will one day be tsar. Georgy’s best friend, Kolek, however, is hanged from a tree, punishment for his traitorous act.
John Boyne’s The House of Special Purpose tells Georgy’s story, from his days living alongside the royal family in the Winter Palace, to his later years in London along with his wife, Zoya, with a narrative that bounces between years and decades, slowly filling in the details.
Even though Georgy’s older sister Asya tried to explain the magnificence of St. Petersburg, he was unprepared for what awaited him in the Winter Palace. Hallways were lined with thick carpets. Golden chandeliers hung from the high ceilings. Chairs were not just chairs, They were carved from red oak with intricate designs, embedded with jewels, and topped with cushions made from luxurious fabrics and stuffed with the softest feathers. He is awe struck meeting the tsar, intimated by the tsaritsa, and terrorized by Rasputin, the sinister priest, who is a constant and foreboding presence in the palace. But the one who impresses Georgy the most and steals his heart after just one glance is the tsar’s youngest daughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia. She’s similarly smitten and the two are soon stealing moments together, talking, kissing, but never consummating their relationship. Both know that she’s destined to marry another royal, although Georgy hopes with all his heart that they will somehow be together.
After the Russian revolution and the end of World War I, Georgy and his wife, Zoya, first live in Paris and then move to London. While young Georgy’s story moves forward in time, the older man’s story is told in reverse. We first meet him and Zoya in 1981 when she is dying from cancer and wants to take one last trip. Both are haunted by events from their pasts. Georgy mourns Kolek, believing that he caused and profited from his best friend’s death, while Zoya lost her entire family and suffers survivor guilt. They love each other, but their marriage has also endured tragedies, including the death of their only child, Arina. The bright spot in their lives is their grandson, Michael, who visits them frequently.
As a farmer, muzhik, Georgy knew how his family and others struggled to make a living. But once inside the Winter Palace, he grows close to the Romaovs and his love for Anastasia makes him loyal to the family. Boyle masterfully recreates these dangerous days for the tsar, fighting a war with Germany, while trying to hold off an insurrection in Russia. Georgy is fortunate to escape, the revolutionaries targeting anyone associated with the royal family.
Boyne’s narrative is just as compelling when George and Zoya arrive in Paris as Russian immigrants trying to make new lives. While both Georgy and Zoya are fortunate to find employment, their friendship circles remain small, often out of necessity, since they continue to hide secrets from their time in Russia, but also because the French and British are wary of outsiders, Germans, of course, but also Russians.
Those steeped in Russian history will know the meaning of the book’s title. Many readers also will guess the big reveal at the end. But that doesn’t take away from a satisfying ending to a fabulous historical novel.
The House of Special Purpose
Top Bigstock photo: State Hermitage museum (Winter Palace) in Saint Petersburg, Russia.