Saturday, March 30, 2013

Russian history, a mystery, and a reviewer's dilemma

When I received an ARC of John Boyne's The House of Special Purpose from Booklist in mid-February, I was pleased; I enjoy reading novels set in Russia, and while Boyne's novels are highly acclaimed, I'd never read his work before.  I was also a little puzzled.  The publisher's description went:

"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.


  1. I would pick it up still :) I haven't read many books about or set in Russia so if I can get my hands on this one I'll be a happy camper. It sounds like a really good read.
    -Kimberly @ Turning the Pages

  2. I bought this book in Paris in 2011, read it immediately and very much enjoyed it even though the central mystery had already been resolved and I figured out pretty early on where the narrative was headed. I enjoyed the book for it's fine writing style and its very beautiful depiction of old age and a lasting marriage.

    Boyne is giving a reading at a bookstore near me in a few weeks and I will definitely go to see him.

  3. We all know what happened to Anne Boleyn and yet we still find her fascinating. I think a lot of people feel the same way about the Romanovs - basements notwithstanding.

  4. Fascinating -- what a tricky situation for a novelist! I'd still get this as I love the Romanovs but I am stumped about how to categorize it! I suppose it'd be like reading any historical novel that has since been proved/disproved.

  5. I'm glad I read it, too. Rarely do 500-page novels move as quickly as this one did, and the way it was structured was just brilliant.

    This is the first novel about the later Romanovs I've seen since the central mystery was resolved. I wonder if there will be any more in the future that take the speculative approach that this one and others (like Robert Alexander's The Kitchen Boy, from 2004) have done. It is a tricky situation, and I'll be curious to read other reviewers' reactions.

  6. My initial response to that question would be "no, I would forgo reading it", but I've read many books on the Romanov's since their fate was finalized and I've enjoyed the majority of them. I think I would give any book a chance, no matter what the subject, because their is always a different way to relay the events that lead up to the definite ending.

    I've always been fascinated by the Romanov's, so I will have to take a look at this novel. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

  7. Anonymous8:14 AM

    Having a long standing fascination with Russian history, and the Romanov's in particular, I'd definitely give this one a read. You've got me interested in this author's writing style now too. Thanks for reviewing here!

  8. So far everyone's in favor! And add me to the list of people who've had a longtime fascination with the Romanovs.

  9. Depends on when the book was written. If it was written before the discoveries, okay, I'll still read it. Anything written now had better (at least for me) take into account what we know NOW about the fate of OTMA & Co. Or if you're going to have a survivor, you'll need to call in the Doctor. Who, that is. As one person closely tied to the Imperial family said, "No one got out of that cellar."

    OR the author needs to be as good as Jack Higgins. I mean, we all know DeGaulle wasn't assasinated, but DAY OF THE JACKAL still keeps you on the edge of your seat while you read.

    So I guess the answer is, as it so often seems to be, "Well, it depends!"

  10. There's a similar problem with Ariana Franklin's "City of Shadows", which was also written before the definitive answer to the Romanov family's fate was revealed. You can still enjoy it, but it's a bit like reading any mystery where you work out the answer in advance - it does take some of the edge off.

  11. I agree with both of you, India and Annis. Depictions of historical figures in fiction should evolve as facts known about them are discovered, and anything written post-2009 in which someone escaped the cellar would fall into the alternate history category for me. I also don't like to be reading what I think is a straightforward historical novel and discover an unrealistic conclusion.

    There will be a new novel about Anne Boleyn out soon in which she survives, Laura Andersen's The Boleyn King, though it's clearly alternate history and a different scenario from what we're talking about here. There's never been a mystery about her beheading.

    I'll cut the author slack if (like this one) the novel was written before a longtime mystery was solved, though. I suspect we may not see any other new Anastasia conspiracy theory novels, unless they're obviously fantasy, but I could be wrong.

  12. I would still read it - most of what I read with historical fiction I know the outcome already anyway. I think that is sort of the nature of the beast. I also am not a fan of really being surprised anyway. I am looking forward to this book. Thanks for the reviews.