"From the author of The Absolutist, a propulsive novel of the Russian Revolution and the fate of the Romanovs."
Given that and the title, the meaning of which anyone who's done any reading about the Russian imperial family will likely recognize, I knew the event that the plot would be leading toward. Why now, I wondered. Why are we seeing a novel about the fate of the Romanovs now, when it's already been proven what happened to them?
This is the US edition, though. The original UK edition appeared in early 2009, when things weren't wrapped up quite so tidily. I imagine that historical discoveries that happen mid-writing (or just before publication) can cause trouble for a novelist. Any fiction published on that topic before a certain date could be considered speculative, and thus acceptable to readers. Novels published after that time could be called either straightforward historical fiction, or alternative history/fantasy, depending on the direction the author takes. However, in the case of The House of Special Purpose, calling it either one in the review would give away the plot! I didn't want to do that.
Also, in reading the novel, I was given many hints as to where the storyline would be heading, but I didn't know for sure (I was prepared to be wrong). Boyne did a great job keeping the suspense level high. And so I struggled a bit with how to word the review, wanting to acknowledge the issues but trying to keep it as spoiler-free as possible. I've tried not to give too much away here, either... hopefully I've succeeded.
This is what I came up with; it appeared in Booklist's 3/15 issue.
Russophiles should immediately comprehend the title of Boyne’s suspenseful and touching novel. In 1981, as his adored wife, Zoya, lies dying, Georgy Jachmenev, an elderly Londoner, reflects on their lengthy marriage and the secret tragedies they endured. A parallel plotline opens in early twentieth-century Russia as young Georgy, a muzhik (peasant) from a backwater village, saves the life of the tsar’s cousin and is brought to St. Petersburg, where he becomes protector to the frail tsarevich and finds romance with Grand Duchess Anastasia. The two narratives dovetail, as the latter progresses forward in time while the former marches steadily backward. The book’s central mystery is dated now, which may limit readers’ appreciation, but it is ingeniously constructed and gripping nonetheless. While no prior historical knowledge is required, the more familiar readers are with the Romanovs, the more clues (and false leads) they will encounter as they proceed. Boyne takes some factual liberties, particularly in the earlier-set segments, but he also skillfully evokes the wrenching pain of loss and exile while presenting a tribute to enduring love.
What are your thoughts? Would you pick up a novel in which the central mystery no longer exists in real life? Does it take anything away from your reading experience, or would you go for it anyway if the subject grabbed your interest?
The House of Special Purpose will be published by Other Press, a NY-based independent publisher, on April 2nd, 2013 (trade pb, $16.95, 480pp); it appeared from Doubleday in the UK in 2009.