The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne

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The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: One of the 20th Century's more romantic stories retold for the new age. It gets over a slightly bitty structure to win through as a success in the end.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0385616065

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There must have been countless people reading the book after watching the film made from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and wondering what John Boyne was going to do next, with no idea he had already done something else - the brilliant ribaldry of Mutiny on the Bounty. If nothing else the pair showed up the chameleonic brilliance of this young author.

Here we are again in a completely different setting, and time, although the young man naively in a strange world features again. The young Georgy gets snatched by fate to be taken from his home village, somewhere in Russia, to become attendant, bodyguard and friend to the youngest Romanov - Alexei, the haemophiliac heir to the Empire upon whose fate so much could depend. Georgy's innocence is evident from the off - he's not trained in being a bodyguard, let alone court etiquette, and as he is unaware of the young man's illness takes time to realise just how important his attendance is.

Meanwhile, the old Georgy is patching us in on the unhappiness of his life, through alternating chapters that scale back from the current times through the 1970s (a diagnosis, holidays), the 1950s (the death of Uncle Joe, infidelity problems) to the earlier years of the 20th century.

This is a technique for Boyne to help us see that for Georgy the past and present are two different countries - will the past ever meet the present? Will the young man he was ever have seen the future - considering the inappropriate love he feels, and another strange visitor to the Romanov household? But don't let me put you off my labelling anything Boyne does as just using a technique. He is entertaining us throughout, as usual.

If like me you relish a fiction using factual characters (such as the Romanovs here) in an intriguing, honest and enjoyable way, then there is much to be had. The Imperial family is a most singular household to be done in fiction, and Boyne wears his usual diligence in research very lightly. And with the current time memoirs of the older Georgy arcing back through the decades, you remain with him and his wife throughout all their goings-on and family circumstances, without always being sure where you'll end up.

The only problem concerns those episodes working back through the twentieth century. I found myself a little frustrated at losing out on consequential details when Georgy-at-80 merely opens windows to his life. We can only guess at the results (or lack thereof) of his wartime labours.

But before too long the momentum of Boyne's stories builds, and there is a successful thrust towards his satisfying conclusions. Were it not for that taking me most speedily through the book's last hundred pages we might be looking at a pure four star novel, and as a result the biggest disappointment from Boyne since I found how much of reality he had altered in his writing of Crippen.

This might boil down to a romance story with an obviously rich historical hook to hang it on, but I was let easily into this world courtesy of the clarity of writing, picky selections from life in the last century, and more. It is not perfect (I had the impression Alexei remained eleven for at least a year and a half) but it certainly is a pleasure to read.

John Boyne's other title this season, The Dare, is a slimline novella featuring in the 'Quick Read' campaign of short, snappy books geared more for those less confident in picking books for their reading. It again features a young male voice, Danny, who sees his family, friendships and possibly whole future splinter courtesy of an unexpected accident. It's taut and astute, and with an RRP lower than most magazines you'd care to mention, ideal for a short journey. Ian Rankin has an entry in the same field which has impressed us.

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