This is another audiobook that we have received from Blackstone Audio as part of Audiojukebox’s Solid Gold Reviewers program. I had never read John Boyne before and he came highly recommended. I was enjoying the story quite a bit until about half way through when I got a sneaking suspicion that there was going to be some cheese attached to this one!
The House of Special Purpose is the story of Georgy– an 88-year-old Russian immigrant living in England in the late 70’s, early 80’s. As the story begins his wife of 60+ years, Zoya, is in the end stages of ovarian cancer. As he waits in the hospital for her eventual death he begins to wax philosophic about his life, their lives, her life– it is an epic tale and very cleverly written. The chapters oscillate between the past and the present until you find out how Georgy meets Zoya.
This is one of those historical fiction novels that places the main (fake) character right in the heart of (real) history– in this case the last days of Imperial Russia. Georgy is the poor son of a farmer who, though a misunderstanding really, becomes the bodyguard of Alexei Romanov, the son of the Tsar (his BFF, a Revolutionist, attempts to shoot the cousin of Tsar Nicholas II. Georgy panics when he sees the gun, runs to stop him from shooting and gets shot instead. He is touted a hero for his bravery and loyalty to the Royal Family and his friend is executed (lots of guilt). Georgy is taken to St. Petersburg to become an Imperial Guard– it is all very convenient). He meets and interacts with all of the major players– the Tsar, The Tsarina, Alexei, Rasputin, Anastasia– and becomes almost one of the family, reaping the benefits of living in a rich palace. He instantly develops a crush on Anastasia and, wouldn’t you know it, she kind of fancies him too! They sneak off in peasant clothes to go ice skating, watch the snow fall during the White Nights Festival, have a snog in the dark crevices of the palace– it is all so romantic (puke)!
Too soon after his arrival, the Russian Revolution brings an end to all of the fun. The Royal Family is arrested and held captive in one of their northern palaces, Ipatiev House (or the House of Special Purpose). The demise of the Romanovs always makes for good story telling but the cheese factor is taken up a notch in this one. Since Georgy was not at the palace when the arrests take place (he was with the Tsar on his souped up train lending an ear as Nicholas II monologues about how hard it is to be Tsar) he knows he is the only one who can rescue his beloved. Miraculously, he travels across Russia to Ipatiev House and arrives, half dead, to see that the guards have been treating the family pretty well. He waits in the forest until he recovers a bit from his travel (he must look good for Anastasia) and eventually shows himself to one of her sisters. They make arrangements for a night he and Anastasia can be reunited. What night do you think they choose?
Meanwhile in England, Georgy is a retired librarian. He talks about day-to-day stuff– his days at work, their family vacations, meals Zoya has prepared, the pride they have for their grandson. It has been a good and normal life– but not without trial. They lose their only daughter (the miracle baby after many miscarriages) in a car accident when she is only in her 30’s, they are not treated very well during WWII because they are immigrants, they lose a close friend due to police brutality during their brief stint in Paris and Zoya is a bit suicidal. Then there is the past they do not speak of…
I don’t want to give away the big secret but– Bet you can’t guess how Georgy and Zoya meet!!??
I thought about giving this one a 2.5 because of the cheese factor but the narration by Stefan Rudnicki was just wonderful. It really and truly felt like an old Russian man was driving with me to and from work each and every day telling me this story. I wasn’t crazy for Georgy’s narration (too much “as you know”, “but of course” and “you must understand”) but I loved Mr. Rudnicki’s portrayal of him– it was spot on perfect. I would be very interested to listen to more books by Rudnicki– looks like he has done A LOT! 3 stars.