Book Review: The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne

First published a decade ago, John Boyne’s The House of Special Purpose (here at his site) features the Romanov dynasty’s final years at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg and their subsequent detention after the 1917 revolutions in Russia.

Told via flashbacks, its narrator is Georgy, a peasant teenager who takes a bullet for the commander of the armed forces as he passes through the young man’s village, and is subsequently employed as an attendant to the crown prince.

Roddy Doyle covers a concurrent period of social upheaval in Dublin via Henry Smart.
If both books have a failing, it’s the creative flair employed in changing historical details to suit the narrative. Doyle’s A Star Called Henry extends the Volunteers’ takeover of Dublin’s General Post Office by a day during 1916’s Easter Rising, as Doyle had too much going on – or so he claimed at the time. But there’s very little in the novel that he couldn’t have worked around in terms of the historical details – even calling the shenanigans.
For Boyne, Rasputin’s death (as just one example) could have been mined for far more sh1ts and giggles. The crazy libertine attitude of the starets lunatic monk man and his cabal of princes and prostitutes could also have been hyped up.

Anyone even remotely familiar with the historical details before they start into the book might be disappointed with certain elements due to expectations – although the storyline itself entertains through the life of the protagonist and his wife.
Although it has its moments, the writing is surprisingly simple much of the time too.
There’s a thread or two left hanging a little too loosely, involving espionage, and a lack of closure related to bereavement – in fact plenty that doesn’t seem to round out as it could.
But so, too, is the life, with the threads that be a-hangin’.

Would I recommend it? Da. Nine thumbs-up here.
Here it is on Goodreads.

Leave a Reply