Book review: ‘Enchantments’ by Kathryn Harrison


A Novel

Kathryn Harrison

Random House: 315 pp., $27

Kathryn Harrison’s new novel begins with drama and a famous death: “The day they pulled father’s body out from under the ice, the first day of the new year, 1917, my sister, Varya, and I became wards of Tsar Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov and were moved, under imperial guard, from the apartment at 64 Gorokhovaya Street to the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Seloe, the royal family’s private village outside the capital.”

The father in question is Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, the feared and despised influence behind the czar’s throne, and the speaker is Rasputin’s 18-year-old daughter, Masha. The Mad Monk had children — who knew? Harrison’s discovery of this historical information, she notes in her acknowledgments, inspired her narrative.

Masha is soon recruited by the czarina, in the hope that she has inherited her father’s powers of healing and will be able to help the young czarevich, Alexei, with his precarious health. Masha comes to know Alexei more intimately as Alyosha. He suffers from hemophilia, the blood disease that has turned out to be another part of his royal birthright. Masha’s mention of the year, 1917, tips us off, however, that she will not be able to save Alyosha and that the Romanovs will soon fall.The young czarevich will indeed bleed to death, though not because of hemophilia.

The territory of “Enchantments” is familiar therefore, but the perspective is new. Masha’s redemptive gifts turn out to be those not of the healer but of the storyteller. In the months after the czar’s abdication, when the Romanovs and their entourage are incarcerated, she and Alyosha weave a magic carpet of story — stories they trade, embroider, re-invent; stories about horses, America, the devil and especially their own families. Masha re-invents our ideas of Rasputin, and the world of Nicholas and Alexandra is imbued with a glow whose fierceness is governed by the imminence of its loss.

Harrison has written previous historical novels, notably “Poison,” but her most famous book, and in a way her ur-text, is “The Kiss,” a devastating memoir in which she tells of the sexual abuse inflicted on her by her own father. “The Kiss” burns with submerged fury, and it announces themes that weave through her work like intertwined veins. In her books, we find a wounded yet steely and profound understanding of power and the hope, the dream almost, that through the wonder of words history might be understood and reclaimed.

One chilly scene features Derevenko, who “had cared for Alyosha for eight years with a devotion that appeared sincere,” testing the new power that the revolution has given him by ordering Alyosha about: “‘You!’ he barked. ‘Light my cigarette. Polish my boots and shine my buckle. And when you’ve done that, go to the kitchen and get me something to eat.’”

Another wonderful moment occurs when the deposed czar tries to take a ride on his bicycle and discovers that even such an innocent desire has been rendered dangerous and absurd by the new forces in control.

The novel’s guiding metaphor is the collection of jeweled eggs that Fabergé crafted for the czar’s children, and one of those eggs in particular, a replica in miniature of the grand imperial palace.

“Inside the egg was a park and trees and a white-and-yellow palace so detailed I almost had to believe I was seeing a real building, only through the wrong end of a telescope,” Masha remembers. “There were balustrades and balconies, patios, windows, arched porticoes, a man-made pond and grotto, a Chinese village, a marble bridge, and an elephant house.”

This egg, Masha says, has a window, which magnifies and casts a spell: “I saw into the egg, all the way in, and not only did I see the tiny palace’s rooms but I entered them, and there were people inside, not people made of jewels, but real people, and the people were us. I was in the palace in the egg and in the palace the egg was in, and one was the same as the other, and I didn’t know who was the real me…"

Eventually, we see Masha married, not, of course, to her beloved Alyosha but to Boris Soloviev, a charlatan, a parody of Rasputin himself, who has “made a career of conducting séances in St. Petersburg, bilking women of their jewels in return for messages from their departed.”

Those jewels help fund Masha’s escape from Russia to Europe and America, where she becomes a circus entertainer. The bigger lion that she tames is history itself, a beast that devours the Romanovs without compunction. “Enchantments” climaxes, as the reader senses it must, with the grisly extermination of Alyosha and his family and the annihilation of their corpses, stacked “like logs on the back of a truck” — dismembered, thrown down a mine shaft, burned and covered with acid.

Harrison’s narrative tactics deliver this oft-told moment with shocking freshness, and a major part of the job of any historical fiction is fulfilled. Harrison acknowledges Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” as an influence; I think I also detect shades of Angela Carter. Harrison is ruthless in her exposure of emotion’s darker side. The Romanov world isn’t idealized, exactly, but the way that world is crushed reminds us of a crucial truth: The individual counts, always and forever.

Rayner is the author, most recently, of “A Bright and Guilty Place.”