Saturday, July 18, 2009

The House of Special Purpose

John Boyne
It’s that time of year again – the summer holidays! And if you’re lucky, you’ll be flying away for a fortnight of guaranteed sunshine. I notice the Lifestyle pages of newspapers and magazines are full of travel and holiday advice - what to eat on the aircraft; what bikini flatters what body shape; what to read by the hotel swimming pool….
Well, stop right there for I think I can add to the general confusion with my world traveller tips. And I speak as one who flew for a living, and lived by hotel swimming pools for years when I was an airstewardess.
My first bit of advice is: don’t eat the aircraft food. Even First Class aircraft food will give you constipation. Second, don’t wear a bikini if you’re over the age of twenty five, have had children, or weigh more than six and a half stone. A one- piece swimsuit is much more flattering.
And finally, what to read?
At the start of my airstewardessing career I made the mistake of taking slim volumes of literary prose to the sun loungers of hotel swimming pools but there’s something about the smell of suntan lotion which kills the concentration. Then I tried frivolous romance. It was easy on the eye but after a while so predictable I began to long for an unhappy ending...
Now finally, years too late, I think I’ve found the perfect combination of profound ideas and passion.
The House of Special Purpose is an imaginative variation on the conspiracy theories surrounding Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, youngest daughter of His Imperial Majesty, Tsar Nicholas 2, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, Grand Duke of Finland and King of Poland. Was Anastasia shot with the rest of her family in a house in Yekaterinburg, by Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, or did she escape?
Our story is told by Georgy Jachmanev, a peasant boy who after an act of reckless heroism is plucked from obscurity and appointed bodyguard and companion to Alexei Romanov, the Tsaravitch. Alexei is a haemophiliac; when he bumps himself his blood cannot clot; he bleeds internally, painfully and horribly, sometimes for weeks on end. Tsar Nicholas, his father, is off at the Front, protecting Russian borders against ‘Cousin Willie’s’ invading armies and his mother is so emotionally fragile she becomes dependent on hypnotic, sinister Father Gregory – also known as Rasputin.
With everybody so distracted, Georgy illicitly courts the gorgeous young Grand Duchess Anastasia.
Intercut with this teenage romance is the present day story of the much older Georgy and his wife Zoya who live quietly together in London. Georgy works at the British Library, Zoya likes to cook for him. They have one child, now dead, and one grandson. Zoya suffers from depression and has suicidal tendencies. She believes she causes bad luck to everyone around her. Her mental anguish is symptomatic of post traumatic stress disorder and her devoted husband is at all times sympathetic and patient with her.
When Zoya is diagnosed with terminal cancer Georgy agrees to her unexpected request that they travel on holiday to Russia, the country they escaped from together, sixty years before, during the Revolution...

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