Enchantments: A Novel
- Kathryn Harrison
- Random House
- 336 pp.
- April 26, 2012
Through bewitching stories, Rasputin’s daughter provides healing and hope to the tsarevich of Russia at the downfall of the Romanov Empire.
Reviewed by Susan Shreve
The captivating Rasputin, Mad Monk, faith healer for the Romanov Empire, beloved and reviled, is murdered and thrown into the River Neva. Thousands of common people, according to his daughter Masha, thronged to the river where he died to collect the water through which his soul had passed. Such was the enduring power of this loved and reviled magician. Masha goes with her sister, Varya, to live with the tsar at the imperial palace, invited by the tsarina in the hope that she has inherited her father’s powers of healing and will be able to help their hemophiliac son, Aloysha, confined to his bed for fear of injury and fatal bleeding. Two months after Masha and Varya’s arrival at the palace, the Bolshevists take over Russia, and the tsar, under house arrest, is forced to abdicate.
In Enchantments Kathryn Harrison imagines familiar historical figures, their spirits and humanity, their mysterious complexities, and she does so with such authority it is as if we know them for the first time — Rasputin, the Romanovs, the doomed Aloysha and especially Masha, who tells the stories that make up Enchantments. In Harrison’s gorgeous prose, Masha weaves the real with the imagined, surfing through time, creating a deep sense of knowing this most romantic of periods. It is stories, as she re-creates her father’s world for Aloysha, which make possible a kind of healing for the doomed and headstrong boy, and opens them both to a tender and impossible love which blooms against the shattering opulence and excess of Romanov Russia.
The stories are the enchantments, full of passion, persuading the reader with sweeping narrative power to fall in love with the tragic Romanovs, to believe in Rasputin not as a figure of myth but flesh and blood, and to trust the authenticity of Masha’s stories as real. The very finest historical fiction has the capacity to astonish the reader, to open the curtains on a new world, and Enchantments does just that.
There is a moment when the end of Romanov Russia is evident: when the deer, the children’s pets, roaming free outside the palace are killed. Aloysha and Masha and their sisters, hearing a single volley of shots, run to the window to witness the bodies of deer, bleeding, dying on the snow. “The first to die were the tamed deer that roamed the tamed forest.” They had not known to be afraid, not the deer and not the children. But Masha knew. She had grown up with a father who came of peasant stock and was embraced by aristocracy, grown up knowing that Rasputin could at any moment be murdered by his enemies. The voice of Masha is stirring and wise, a balance of daring and fear. Of vulnerability and strength. She is the heart of the novel and the hope for the future. What is ultimately striking in this triumph of a novel is how these shattered lives exist, and how in a brushstroke they are elevated from supernatural to myth.
Harrison has said that her fascination with Romanov Russia and the elusive Rasputin began when she first read Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra, but it was not until she discovered Masha had become a trainer of large cats in a circus in Texas that Harrison had a vision of the novel she could write. As Masha says, “With the cats, under the spotlight, I understood what — whom I’d been waiting my whole life to understand … I knew what my father felt when he healed. Ecstasy …”
At the end of Enchantments, in prison awaiting execution, Aloysha writes: “I think I loved my mother better when Masha was with me, when she turned everything into stories. She made all of us more sympathetic. She made us out to be braver and kinder …”
Such is the haunting enchantment of story.
The amazing Masha is what remained of the Romanovs and remains for the reader as a converging lens on the blighted romanticism of Russia as an empire, and the grand and lonely isolation of those who died with it.
Susan Shreve is a novelist whose fourteenth novel You Are the Love of My Life will be published in August 2012. She has also written many books for children, personal essays and a memoir Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood.