In a fictional account narrated by Rasputin’s daughter, Masha, and the young heir to the Russian throne, Alyosha, Kathryn Harrison recreates the final months of Tsar Nicholas II and his doomed family in Enchantments.
Rasputin’s strange death opens the story; the politically influential mystic who was seen as a holy man by some and a degenerate womanizer by others – was almost impossible to kill.
“Enough cyanide to finish off ten horses. A dozen bullets. An ax to the head. And still they had to drown him.”
With hope that Rasputin’s mysterious power to stop the bleeding of their hemophiliac son had been passed on to his daughter, the royal Alexandra and Nicholas decide to adopt Rasputin’s young daughter, Masha, after his gruesome death.
Masha and her sister are brought to the palace to live, and the tale begins. As the days grow grimmer, with Nicholas forced to abdicate and the royal family imprisoned, Masha shows her power not to be mystical or medical. Her talent lies in weaving stories – some based on folklore, others on her father’s exploits – that distract the young prince from his constant pain. The prince cannot be relieved by morphine in the fear that he would become dependent on the drug. Through Masha, the narrative goes back and forth from opulent times of the past to their current imprisoned state.
Harrison uses her own power with language to inform the reader about the lives of the royals with their sumptuous surroundings and expensive trinkets (those Fabergé eggs among them). To follow Harrison’s meandering from Nicholas’s courtship of Alexandra to Rasputin’s early escapades before becoming the tsarina’s advisor, it would help to know the history of the Russian revolution. Harrison ruthlessly hopscotches back and forth and sideways through the years, and it’s easy to get lost.
Although the execution of the royal family is well documented in history, Harrison’s description of their death is no less jarring, and with more brutal impact because the scene does not appear chronologically. Harrison inserts the details unexpectedly, between blithe stories of Rasputin’s escapades and Masha’s new life with her husband, a royalist supporter who never abandons hope that the tsar is alive and will be reinstated.
Just as in real life, Masha eventually makes her way to America to become a lion-tamer in the Ringling Brothers Circus, and Alyosha’s diary of his last days, is mysteriously delivered to her, confirming his death and the end of the dynasty.
With young Alyosha’s bravery as he grows into a manhood suddenly cut short, and Masha’s circumspect observations of Rasputin as a kind and loving father, the historical fiction becomes a poignant account of a brutal time in Russian history. Not an easy read, Enchantments requires undivided attention to follow, but if you’d like to imagine how these legends of history lived, loved, and managed each day, Harrison offers a believable possibility from a different perspective.