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14 November 2018

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The House of Special Purpose

By John Boyne

...Such quietude and contentment is also the objective of the protagonist in John Boyne’s The House of Special Purpose, which takes us back in time yet another 20 or 30 years, to the last years of the tsar. The novel is positioned as more of a literary novel, yet it is infused with mystery: who is this Georgy Jachmenev, how did he end up a servant in the tsar’s household, and just what did he do or see that would lead him to think that someone would be pursuing him to the ends of the earth (or, more exactly, to London and the British Museum).

After fleeing Russia in the aftermath of the Revolution, Jachmenev spends some time in France, gets married, then moves to England, where he constructs a live of quiet exile. The book begins in 1981, as his wife is dying and he is looking back on his life, trying to reconcile events that will only be revealed as the book unfolds, as he tells his tale, infused with equal parts pride and remorse.

Cleverly told, the narrator alternates between going backward and forward in time until the stories meet in the middle and the tale reaches its climax (which, given the title, one does not expect to be rife with surprises for Russophiles; but don’t bank on it...)

This is a tale of exile, of bad and worse choices, of the measure of human character, of the mysteries that lie hidden within every man and woman. And while the conclusion (no spoilers here) is counterfactual, alternative history, it is nonetheless an enjoyable read.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2013