Narrator Georgy Daniilovich Jachmenev reviews his long life, from being a servant in the household of Czar Nicholas II to his post-retirement years in London.
Georgy is the son of a common laborer in the small rural town of Kashin when a political accident radically changes his life. Georgy’s friend Kolek Boryavich decides to act on a revolutionary impulse and tries to assassinate Grand Duke Nicholas, cousin of the czar, but in the shock of seeing his friend engage in this violent act, Georgy steps in front of the duke and takes the bullet instead. As a reward for his unintended heroism, Georgy is sent to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to work for Czar Nicholas. As an exuberant adolescent, Georgy becomes a caretaker to Alexei, the 11-year-old hemophiliac son of the czar and heir to the Romanov throne, but he almost loses his position when he takes his charge tree-climbing, for Alexei’s health must be preserved at all costs. Georgy’s stay at the Winter Palace puts him in contact with the young and winsome Anastasia, with whom he falls desperately in love, as well as with the unsavory Rasputin. Boyne moves us across decades of Georgy’s life through reminiscences ranging from the Bolshevik Revolution to his emigration to England (where he gets a job at the British Museum library) to translating messages during World War II (and meeting Churchill in the process) to the loss of his beloved only daughter, Arina, to his troubled but loving marriage to Zoya.
Boyne re-creates both Georgy’s personal life and the life of pre-Revolutionary Russia with astonishing density and power.