I’ve been slowly working my way through my to-read list on Goodreads and it’s been a very interesting experience. The library system where I live has most of the books on there and I’ve been checking them out and seeing how they are. Some books aren’t as good as I expected, so I often don’t read those. In fact, there’s one in particular I was really looking forward to, but it had so many problems that I had to stop reading it. It’s called The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne.
History buffs and Russia fanatics (both of those terms describe me to a T!) will recognize the title as a reference to the merchant’s house that the last tsar of Russia and his family were imprisoned in before their execution in July 1918. (In Russian, it’s Дом особого назначения, in case you were wondering.) I’ve been obsessed with the Romanovs for years, so I couldn’t wait to read this book.
Now, I should make one thing clear: I understand that authors can take “poetic license” when writing fiction. They invent characters that didn’t exist, almost certainly invent most dialogue (because what historical document contains a word-for-word description of every conversation ever), and sometimes slightly change the chronology of events. However, poetic license does not give anyone the excuse to be a sloppy researcher. And that was my problem with this book: there were so many glaring inaccuracies that I cannot help but conclude it was sloppily researched.
Let’s talk about the names in the book. The main character, Georgy Jachmenev, has a good friend named Kolek Boryavich Tansky (p. 27). Kolek is not a real first name. As far as I can gather, it would be a diminutive/nickname form of the name Nikolai. Kolya would be a more common nickname, but I can work with Kolek. The patronymic, Boryavich, is completely inaccurate, though. In Russian culture, a person’s middle name is called the patronymic and it’s formed from the father’s first name. There are different endings if the person is a man or a woman, but the fact remains that Boryavich is not a patronymic. I’m guessing the author took the name Borya and made it into a patronymic. Except Borya is not a first name, either—it’s the diminutive/nickname of Boris! Patronymics are never formed from a diminutive. They come from the full first name, so this character’s patronymic should be Borisovich.
This isn’t the only character with a messed up name, either. I could tolerate it once. The main character’s father is named Daniil Vladyavich Jachmenev. That patronymic isn’t right, either. I’m not sure what the author was aiming for here. Vladimirovich? Vladislavovich? Your guess is as good as mine.
The odd thing is that other characters have perfectly correct names. For example, Kolek’s father is named Borys Alexandrovich Tansky, which is perfectly accurate. The spelling of the first name is a bit unconventional, but not technically wrong.
And now let’s talk about the main character’s wife’s first name: Zoya. At one point, the main character says of her name: “A Russian name, of course. It means life” (p. 8). I know how to say life in Russian, and it isn’t anything like this! (It’s жизнь [zhizn], if you’re curious.) I actually researched this because it bothered me so much. As it turns out, Zoya comes from the Greek word for life. So while I guess the author was technically correct here… I do think he’s misleading because it doesn’t mean life in Russian and in multiple places he implies it does.
And then there’s the main character, Georgy. Early on, he acquires an odd nickname: “At the age of six I was a foot shorter than all my friends, earning myself the nickname Pasha, which means ‘the small one'” (p. 30). Again, this isn’t right at all! Pasha is a nickname, but not for Georgy, nor does it mean “the small one.” Pasha is a nickname for the name Pavel, which is the Russian form of Paul. I cannot imagine why a child named Georgy would be nicknamed Pasha. It’s just inexplicable.
Anyway, after these rampant errors—seriously, in a couple of chapters it felt like there were multiple bad patronymics and characters addressing our protagonist as Pasha on nearly every single page—I grew disgusted with the book and decided to stop reading it. Then I had an idea: it would be so fitting, I decided, if the plot twist was a certain stupid, overdone one when it comes to the Romanovs. I flipped to the end of the book to find out…
Warning: spoiler ahead! Though by this point, you’re probably completely put off from this book…
…and sure enough, I was right. It’s revealed at the end of the story that Zoya is—surprise, surprise—actually the Grand Duchess Anastasia, tsar’s youngest daughter, who somehow managed to escape execution at the hands of the Bolsheviks that terrible night. Sigh. This idea has been so overdone throughout the years that it bores me.
I realize this may seem paradoxical since I’m an ardent admirer of the Romanovs. After all, if I have some kind of affection for them, you’d think I’d want at least one of them to have survived, right? Of course I wish they hadn’t been executed. What annoys me is when facts are overlooked. I’ve read so many accounts of their last days, in English and in Russian, and the fact will always be it was impossible for anyone to have survived that execution. The forensic evidence also discredits any survival theories, too.
If you’re going to pull this trick as an author and have one or two of the family survive, you’ve got to do it in such an outrageous way, as part of a massive, crazy yet amazing plot that I would never have come up with on my own for me to enjoy it. I actually just finished reading such a book and I will certainly write a post about it, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, if you know of any good books—fiction or nonfiction—concerning imperial Russia, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and let me know.