By Kathryn Harrison
Random House March 2012
From the library
After the death of her infamous father Rasputin, Masha and her sister are sent to live with the Romanov family at the imperial palace. The tsarina hopes that Masha may be able to help her son Aloysha, who suffers from hemophilia. While she is unable to reproduce the miracles her father performed, a friendship develops between the two. Masha weaves fanciful tales to entertain the bed-ridden prince. As their relationship shifts from friendship to romance, the Bolsheviks place the family under house arrest. What will happen to the Romanovs? Will Masha's story forever be connected to the Rasputin and the royal family?
The strongest part of this novel is the relationship between Masha and the enigmatic Rasputin. Ms. Harrison makes the relationship complicated, but sincere. Although the story opens with his death, his influence hangs over the whole book. In Masha’s memories, Rasputin is often away and paying attention to those seeking his healing or his love instead of his children. But his love for them is obvious. It’s easy when dealing with a real person to make them into a hero or a villain. But Harrison has created a very complex character and her writing allows the nuance of his personality and relationships to come through.
As Masha buries her father, she has to deal with complicated feelings. “Though I well knew the difference between sleep and death, covering my father’s body with a blanket of dirt, of the soil he loved, felt like pulling up the bedclothes, tucking him in tight. Standing by the grave, watching the progress of the gardeners, seeing the hole as it was filled in, I found relief under my misery. For months I’d worried for the safety of my father, who refused to take even the simple precaution of telling the tsarina’s police where he was headed and whom he planned to see when he left the apartment. He’d predicted his death and left me no choice but to wait for it. Now it was done, his prophecy fulfilled, his body washed and dressed and laid to rest.”
It’s fascinating to discover how much of this story is truth and how much is imagined. Rasputin did have a daughter named Masha who escaped from Russia and became a circus performer. Part of the fun in reading Enchantments is discovering what is factual and what is story. Reading this book will give you great insight into the Rasputin and Romanov families. But the details of the Revolution and the civil unrest remain unknown to the reader, since they are basically unknown to our young protagonists.
The only downside is the strange perspective. Masha is looking back on her time with the Romanovs. We know from the beginning that Aloysha, at least, will not have a happy ending. She often notes that “this will be the last time Aloysha does such and such” or “that he will be dead within a year.” The tension that remains is caused by our lack of knowledge about what will happen to the rest of the Romanov family and what will happen to Masha and Varya between the present and the time that Masha is remembering. I wonder if the story would have been even more compelling if it were told without knowledge of what would happen later.
Enchantments is a novel that will entice its readers to rediscover the beauty and tragedy of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. Kathryn Harrison masterfully weaves a story of a girl who is forced to grow up in a moment with a young romance, a fascinating look at the history, and the magic that exists in the simple act of telling a story. If nothing else, you can close this book and sing “Have you heard? There’s a rumor in St. Petersburg…”