Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar by Robert Alexander

I read The Kitchen Boy in June and have struggled since then to write a review of it for PaperBackSwap. I'm still not sure how I felt about the ending, or whether I believe the author played fair with the reader. I will try as much as possible to keep my comments spoiler-free, but since my objections have to do with "the big twist," it may be impossible for me not to let something slip that could suggest how the novel ends. If you have not yet read the book, you may want to skip the rest of this post.

The Kitchen Boy tells the story of the last living witness to the events of July 16, 1918, at the "House of Special Purpose," when the Bolsheviks murdered the last Russian tsar and his family. Now an old man, Misha reveals his secrets in a tape recording meant for his granddaughter, describing the relationships he forged with the royal family and what he saw during the terrible night they were massacred.

I enjoyed how author Robert Alexander developed the character of the kitchen boy - a devoted family servant with an observant nature and a deep compassion for this family, who had lost everything but each other. Through Misha's eyes, I got to know the tsar, tsarina, their four daughters and their son. Alexander portrayed them as a brave, close-knit, loving family. Nicholas may have been a terrible tsar, but he was quite obviously a caring father. Throughout the book, Misha's bond with the family deepens as he delivers letters, smuggled into the house in milk bottles, that make them all hope for rescue.

Misha then describes how the family was executed and what happened to their corpses, providing an explanation for why the bodies of Grand Duchess Marie and Tsarevich Alexis were not found in a mass grave with those of the rest of the family. (This past August, members of a Russian history group found two partial skeletons near the mass grave that could be the remains of the missing children.)

But Misha only tells part of the truth. After his death, his granddaughter travels to Russia ... and the big twist occurs. It was well-written and so cleverly handled I didn't see it coming, but it left me with a vague feeling of disappointment. I had come to like Misha and the royal family as he described them, but the ending put everything Misha said in doubt. Also, some key elements of the story that had intrigued me turned out to be complete fabrications. I also thought Alexander pushed the ending's believability a bit too far.

Without that ending, I would have given this book an A-. Alexander truly captured the Russian soul, especially in the psychic torment felt by Misha all his life. Because of my ambivalence about the ending, I am dropping the novel's grade to a B-. I still think the book is worth reading, especially for Romanov buffs, and I eventually plan to read Alexander's second novel, about Rasputin.


Mimi said...

Hum. I read the book and I don't remember feeling that anything was in doubt (it has been awhile, though) - I do remember the twist and thought it was quite good.

Felicia J. said...

Mimi, what I meant was, since Misha proved himself to be an unreliable narrator, should I believe in his descriptions of the touching relationships he formed with the royal family? I really liked how Alexander portrayed those relationships. The surprise twist showed Misha was not who he said he was, so did he really have a relationship with the tsar, tsarevich and family at all? Was his whole story lies designed to cover up his true identity? I didn't like to think the entire story I had been enjoying up until the "twist" was just a fabrication, especially after getting emotionally involved with it.

Mimi said...

Hum. I can see your point, but I didn't consider himself unreliable. I thought that the big reveal was going to be that it was HE that was um, you know, and not HER. But, I'd realized that someone was.