Sunday, April 21, 2013

In Russia, Books Read (to) You

The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne
(Blackstone Audio, 2013)
Format: Audio download via's review program (narrated by Stefan Rudnicki)

From Goodreads: "From the author of The Absolutist, a propulsive novel of the Russian Revolution and the fate of the Romanovs.
Part love story, part historical epic, part tragedy, The House of Special Purpose illuminates an empire at the end of its reign. Eighty-year-old Georgy Jachmenev is haunted by his past—a past of death, suffering, and scandal that will stay with him until the end of his days. Living in England with his beloved wife, Zoya, Georgy prepares to make one final journey back to the Russia he once knew and loved, the Russia that both destroyed and defined him. As Georgy remembers days gone by, we are transported to St. Petersburg, to the Winter Palace of the czar, in the early twentieth century—a time of change, threat, and bloody revolution. As Georgy overturns the most painful stone of all, we uncover the story of the house of special purpose."

What? Another Boyne audiobook? Didn't I just do one of those? Yep, and I was pretty taken with it, so when I got the chance to listen to this one, I grabbed it. And what did I say about Boyne last time? He loves to explore people in crisis and identity and the difficulty of changing your role in the world. And history. And boy, howdy, does he do it this time, too. This time, his subjects are the Romanovs and WWI and an unassuming kid named Georgy who ends up leading, for a time, a pretty extraordinary life. 

That extraordinary time - working in the Winter Palace as guard/companion to young hemophiliac Tzarevich Alexei while still a teen himself - marked Georgy for the next five or six decades as he and his wife make a life together in Paris and later in London, where he worked for years for the British Library. (This is what we call a clue to the fact that we should side with this guy. He delves into books.) And he's pretty great - intuitive, intelligent, devoted, often swept along but never without trying to analyze his place in the flood. His wife is more of a cipher, but since Georgy loves her, that's fine. Their grandson is the most dynamic character, a spark who weaves in and out of the narrative whenever it's in the present day.

I enjoyed the atmosphere Boyne presented of life in Russia a century ago - it is a world both strange and familiar. I mean, I had a few tidbits in my brain about the Romanov dynasty, the connections to other European royalty, the mysterious princess Anastasia, that weird Rasputin dude. But it isn't something I've read a lot about, and I liked the way Boyne drew them.

Still, with all the good, there was something just a little distancing me from this book. It didn't fully make sense to me until the last line, at which point I thought, "Oh, he just wanted to write that line, so he constructed a novel to support it." Which isn't the worst way for an author to envision a book, but the underlayers in this case weren't quite stable enough. I wish there'd been more to Zoya besides constant tragedy, and that some of the subplots that were clearly intended to provide emotional resonance had been fleshier.

The audio - well, one thing for sure: Rudnicki has a lovely Russian-accented baritone. Unfortunately it was too slowly paced for me - I didn't relish the idea of listening to that deliberate hitting of accents for 15 hours, so I opted for 1.5x speed playback, which was better. (Still slow, though.) His females were all pretty much the same voice, and there wasn't a lot of differentiation between Georgy's narrative and his dialogue, which is one of my audiobook pet peeves. It's not so awful or anything, but it wasn't the kind of narration I was itching to get back to, and combined with a similarly non-itchy book, this wasn't the biggest of successes for me. Alas.

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