Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Review: Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Rasputin is a name to which history has not been particularly kind: the Mad Monk, sexually rapacious charlatan, filthy heretic, villain, predatory opportunist who was amongst the major reasons for the overthrow of the last tsar of Russia. It is hard to tease out the man from the myth, a myth written by the historical victors and Kathryn Harrison, in her newest novel, Enchantments, doesn't really try to dispell or reinforce the popular view of the public Rasputin. Instead she comes at him obliquely, through the eyes of his daughter. And what of Rasputin's eldest daughter? Maria Rasputin was only 18 when her father was murdered and she and her younger sister were taken under the protection of the Romanovs.  These two girls lived with the royal family during their final days in power and in the early days of their captivity and house arrest. Although the tsarina has hopes that Maria (Masha) has inherited her father's healing ability, the power to ease and stop Alexei's hemophilia, she hasn't. What Masha does have, through her growing friendship with Alexei (Alyosha) and life with the Romanovs, is an insider's view of the end of a reign, a daughter's understanding of her father, and a very personal connection to the flesh and blood people up against the execution wall of history.

Told many years after the Revolution, Masha looks back on her past, her father, and her friendship with Alyosha Romanov, recounting that pivotal year she lost her much beloved father and half fell in love with the tsarevich, entertaining him with her fantastical stories, distracting him from both his pain and the simmering knowledge that he and his family were living under a death sentence. Masha spends many hours with the tsarevich recounting Russian history, his family's personal history, and her father's life. She tells of Rasputin's early life and how he became known as the mystical healer upon whom the Tsarina latched to save her precious son. She doesn't gloss over the way he accepted sexual favors as his due nor over the way he put his position above the daughters who loved him so well and his succumbing to the worldly temptations of the capital but she shows him as a more balanced man, holy and gifted and feared and martyred in equal measure. She creates a picture of Grigory Rasputin that does not often jibe with other, perhaps admittedly, biased accounts.

But her own father's reputation and life is not all she speaks of with Alyosha.  Masha creates fantastical tales of his parents' courtship and love match. She recounts the madcap celebration of Tsar Nikolay's coronation and the tragedy in its wake. She draws intimate pictures of both the Tsar and Tsarina, capturing their humanity far beyond them as symbols of the monarchy. And the tsarevich listens enthralled, always wanting more, learning to see through the imagination and eyes of Masha. As she acts as his Sheherazade, the two, Masha and Alyosha, bcome extraordinarily close companions and confidantes. Alyosha feels comfortable enough with Masha to try to explore his new and budding sexuality with her although the majority of their interactions are centered around the stories Masha tells, almost folkloric in feel.

While the end of the Romanov tale is in no doubt, Harrison has done a beautiful job with the pacing of this non-linear novel, keeping the tension high as they move inexorably toward their date with destiny. The novel is a seamless blend of history and fiction, with the latter bringing the real life characters into clearer focus, giving them inner lives, desires, and pressures. Her use of Masha as a story-teller to educate Alexei (and the reader) on the history behind his birthright is well done and believable even when she tells of the most fantastical events and happenings. There is a sense of inevitability and yet the small dogged desperation of hope woven throughout the novel. Although the story continues with Masha's life outside of Russia and touches on the almost unbelievable path she trod as a performer, once her connection to the Romanov family is gone, the story is somehow less captivating. The major interest here is her complicated relationship with the doomed tsarevich rather than her life post-Revolution. Harrison has drawn a magnificent picture of a Russia in turmoil and the preternaturally calm patch of it that the royal family tried to maintain as the noose tightened around them. The writing is magical and fanastical evoking place and character beautifully and the reading was smooth and satisfying. Historical fiction fans, especially those enchanted by the doomed beauty of the last of the Romanovs, will enjoy this novel very much.

For more information about Kathryn Harrison and the book check out her website. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE this period of history, even though it IS a rather bloody one.

    Thanks for being on the tour!


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