Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

29th Mar 2012

Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

In a footnote, Harrison explains, ‘It was this particular narrative thread of the Romanov tragedy that caught the attention of a girl (and, later, a woman) who sought out stories of violent martyrdom, stigmata, vampires – anything that presented bleeding as a vehicle of transformation.’

Harrison is perhaps best known for The Kiss (1997), her controversial memoir of an incestuous relationship with her father.

She has also written several novels, including Thicker Than Water, The Binding Chair and Envy; her non-fiction ranges from biography and travel writing to true crime.

The story is told by Maria (‘Masha’), daughter of Grigori Rasputin, the wandering mystic to whom the Tsarina, Alexandra, was devoted.

Born a Siberian peasant, Rasputin was able to ease Alyosha’s pain. Nonetheless, among Russia’s intelligentsia he was dubbed ‘the mad Monk’, and some claimed that his influence extended to the heart of government.

Rasputin was murdered in 1916. Within months, Tsar Nicholas II (‘Nikolay’) abdicated the throne, and his family (including four daughters) were held captive until 1918, when they were executed.

Harrison focuses on the period between Rasputin’s death and the Romanovs’ departure from St Petersburg, speculating on what might have happened if Masha then took on her father’s role as companion to Alyosha.

There is no implication here that Masha had inherited her father’s healing gift. Instead, like Scheherazade in The Arabian Nights, she tells stories to the lonely, ailing prince.

Her tales range from the fantastic (drawing on Slavic legends like Baba Yaga, a witch who preys on children) to his family’s glorious past.

And in another literary illusion, Masha retells the story of Nikolay’s coronation, overseen by The Devil (in the style of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margerita).

At eighteen, Masha was just four years older than Alyosha, and Harrison also brings sexual tension to their relationship. Whereas the Tsarevitch has often been viewed as a mere symbol of a doomed elite, Harrison portrays him as a teenage boy with normal desires, and an awareness of mortality that equips him to accept change rather more easily than his parents and siblings. This delicate strand reflects a recurring psychoanalytic theme in Harrison’s work.

Despite her bold use of fictional devices, Enchantments is grounded in research. Inspired by historian Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra – which became a popular British film in 1971 – Harrison paints a sympathetic, humane picture of the Romanovs, dismissing rumours of an affair between Rasputin and the Tsarina, and placing Alyosha’s illness centre-stage.

Harrison suggests that it was the necessary strain of concealing his condition that made the Imperial family seem so remote and detached from the public.

It is hard not to feel compassion for a family who suffered such a wretched demise. Enchantments focuses on their home life, and the savagery with which they were ultimately treated.

A young girl like Masha would not have understood the wider political context, that ‘Bloody Nicholas’ had plunged Russia into economic and social ruin, largely due to an oppressive domestic policy and a series of failed military campaigns.

Nonetheless, Masha notices the appalling deprivation endured by ordinary people, particularly in cities like St. Petersburg where radicalism gained momentum more readily than among the rural peasantry that comprised the greater Russian population.

Harrison goes on to explore Masha’s colourful later life, as contrasted with Alyosha’s final days. By the 1930s, Rasputin’s daughter had emigrated to America, where she worked as a lion tamer in a travelling circus.

The twilight of the Romanovs has been a subject of debate for almost a century, perhaps because the system that usurped them would also prove to be deeply flawed.

The Tsar and his family were isolated figures, and there is a lingering unreality about them which Harrison cannot quite penetrate; her surreal, satirical touches are finally weighed down by the simple pathos of her tale.

Enchantments is published by today by Fourth Estate. You can buy it in hardback for £10.19, or for Kindle for £8.99.

Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended for: Readers of literary fiction with a passion for Russian history.

Other recommended reading: Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport; Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak; 2017 by Olga Slavnikova.

Tara Hanks