Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Had Tsar Nikolay kept the throne, I might be the daughter of a saint rather than a madman. Russia would have had no choice but to have the Church declare my father a martyr, as France did Joan of Arc, retried in absentia, twenty years after her murder. After all, what king can afford to be associated with madness? A man prone to hallucinations and yet allowed access to the tsarina and her children: that man had to be declared holy, a saint rather than a scheming impostor. Otherwise it would reflect badly on the ruling dynasty.
I have long been intrigued with the history, the literature, the people of Russia. In college, I took more courses in Russian history and literature than in any other class outside of my two majors. No matter how many times I read of Tsar Nicholay Alexandrovich Romanov, Alexandra Fyodorovna, his God-fearing wife, their four beautiful daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and their hemophiliac son, Alyosha, they have held an “enchantment” which is only exceeded by that of Grigory Rasputin. This holy man, or mad monk, may have been truly magical in his healing powers. Or, he may have been the last hope to which the tsarina could cling regarding her son’s well being. Either way, their story remains one of endless fascination for me.
Kathryn Harrison brought this story to life from a whole new point of view in her novel Enchantments; she tells it through the eyes of Rasputin’s daughter, Matryona Grigorievna (Masha), who came to live with the Romanov family after her father was pulled dead from the icy depths of the Neva River. The Romanov family is living in Tsarskoe Selo, a palace far grander than I realized, with such places as tiered gardens and Chinese villages and a whole room for Faberge eggs. But, it cannot protect them from the anger of the starving people who ultimately succeed in killing Rasputin and overthrowing the Imperial family.
The characters are so well realized that when I closed the book I felt that Masha has just told her story to me rather than to Alyosha. She speaks of her father’s healing abilities, his unkempt beard and sexual prowess just as if she was sitting at the foot of my bed speaking in person. She tells of her country’s unrest such that you can feel the tension mounting with the hunger of the people. She tells of the fear and courage of the Romanovs, and her attraction to Alyosha despite his youth, position as heir, and deadly disease of hemophilia. We suffer with him as on numerous times his leg swells to such proportions it must be braced, and no one will give him any morphine so as not to create dependencies. We suffer when the Romanovs are trapped, and shot, and thrown away as so much debris, unaware of the extent to which the Russian people have despaired.

When the Romanov’s story concludes, the book does not. We learn of Masha joining Barnum and Bailey to become a circus performer. First, she works with horses for she seems to understand them better than humans. Then, she trains the cats. Who can understand the mind of a tiger? Yet, surely it is not so dissimilar to the recalcitrant background from whence she came.

Enchantments is an incredible story, brilliantly imagined and told by Kathryn Harrison. It keeps the fire of mystique burning long after the family has been murdered and thrown down an empty mine shaft, and longer still than Rasputin’s ashes have been scattered to the wind. The Mad Monk lives on in our minds from the pages where he existed in Harrison’s book. His daughter, too, will not soon be forgotten.

“Kathryn Harrison is the author of the novels Envy, The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure, and Thicker Than Water. She has also written memoirs, The Kiss and The Mother Knot, a travel memoir, The Road to Santiago, a biography, Saint Therese of Lisieux, and a collection of personal essays, Seeking Rapture. Ms. Harrison is a frequent reviewer for The New York Times Book Review; her essays, which have been included in many anthologies, have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Vogue, O magazine, Salon, and other publications. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their children.” You can visit her website here.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review this novel.

14 thoughts on “Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison”

  1. What a wonderful review on what sounds like a fascinating, epic novel. Reading your post makes me think of the film 'Nicholas and Alexandra' which I saw in my younger days. So Rasputin did have magical powers…


  2. Great review — I so agree that Masha was the hook of the story — she was so vibrant and real! I adored this book — really loved it. Literary-ish hist fic at its best!


  3. Wow, this one sounds absolutely amazing! I'm a huge fan of Russian/Soviet history so this is exactly my kind of book.

    Thanks for being on the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.


  4. I know so little of this story, sadly, but your review makes me want to learn so much more and to read this book myself! Thanks for a beautiful, impassioned review, Bellezza!


  5. I'm the daughter of a Uni student from the 60's – his passion and interest in Russian history has impacted my life in my name and the music I grew up with. I'm fascinated by the literature also – but never had the skills, time or ability to stick to reading. Thanks for the review – One day I will….


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