Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison is a historical novel set in Russia that is loosely based on the life story of Masha Rasputin, Gregory Yefimovich Rasputin's daughter. This novel focuses on the belief that Rasputin was a healer and that only those who feared him doubted his abilities. Throughout the novel we are only introduced to characters who are supporters of Rasputin and his work. From the peasant population who flock to the site of his murder to get the last drop of his healing power to the Tsarina who calls upon him each time her son injures himself.
Rasputin’s most devoted follower is his daughter and our narrator, Masha. She is unquestioning in her faith and obedience to his words and prophecies, which unveils itself as the force behind every move she makes within the novel. In fact, Rasputin is the driving force behind all of the action in the novel.
As the novel begins, Rasputin has been killed and Masha and her sister Varya have become wards of the Romanovs and sent to live in Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo with the royal family. It is believed that Masha has her father’s gift and she has inherited the responsibility of healing Tsarvich Alyosha who her father treated for years due to his hemophilia.
Masha’s voice grabs the reader immediately; she is here to tell us her story and the story of those who surrounded her in her life. There is no hesitation, there is no sentimentality, when she speaks of those closest to her who were brutally murdered, it is simply up to her to speak for those who weren’t able to make it out of Russia.
She begins her story by saying, “But first: my father. For without Gregory Yefimovich Rasputin, the end of the Romanovs is no different from that of the Hapsburgs or the Ottomans or any other of the great dynasties that collapsed at the beginning of the century.”
It is not long after Masha and Varya arrive that Nikolay II is forced to abdicate his throne and the entire family is put under house arrest as the February Revolution begins. Confined to a small section of Alexander Palace Masha fills her days with Alyosha by telling him stories.
I told him about my father, about me, about Siberia. I told him stories my father told us when we were children, I did whatever I could to distract him.”It is mostly through these stories that we learn about Gregory Rasputin, The Romanovs, and about Masha and Alyosha themselves.
As Masha lives among the Romanovs she starts to show us many unexpected qualities that incite empathy in the reader. Instead of seeing the rulers that history reports, they become sympathetic characters who the reader is made to feel sorry for.
We see the former Tsar being bullied as he tries to go for a simple bicycle ride and the former Tsarina burn her love letters so they could not be exploited. Mostly, we see the relationship between Masha and Alyosha develop from acquaintance to friendship to something more intimate. Harrison gives each character a trait that is so humanly vulnerable that we forget that they are the autocrats that the rest of the country is overthrowing.
We hear the stories that Masha is telling, and are given glimpses into the daily life of the family, so by the time the government arranges transport and exile for the Romanov family, we are hoping for their safety even though we already know their fate.
We want Masha and Alyosha to live happily ever after and for the former Tsar and Tsarina and their daughters to begin a new life in a small town in Siberia. Yet, history has already written itself and Harrison stays true to the facts, Masha and Alyosha will be separated and the Romanov family will be sent to their eventual deaths.
The latter half of the novel tells of Masha’s marriage to a charlatan (an event her father prophesized), her desperate search to find details about her sister, and her eventual profession as a circus performer.
As she is trapped in her loveless marriage, and is writing dozens of letters with only the hope that she will find out that Varya is still alive, she expresses her only doubt about her father’s prophecy. It is only in that despair that she finds herself: she realizes that she is the daughter of Gregory Yefimovich Rasputin, “The sole thing of value I possessed was my father’s history. His history and his name.”
Her new career path as a circus performer brings her to America where she is desperate to escape her past, but she soon realizes that there is no way to remove her memories. Even an old journal of Alyosha’s finds its way to her from “A friend in the old country.” For the next few chapters it is Alyosha telling her stories.
As in every historical novel, the balance of fact and fiction is a delicate one. For Enchantments, Harrison has chosen a moment of history ripe with controversy and irresistibly eccentric characters that had the right amount of mystery so her fiction would not be a glaring variation from history.
Masha’s character is heavy with historical accuracy with just the right amount of fictional artistic license that allows her to tell us about the other character’s personal lives. Harrison stays true to the historical occurrences surrounding Rasputin, the Romanovs, the February Revolution, and the adult life of Masha Rasputin, our narrator, only creating the catalyst for Masha and Alyosha’s relationship to begin.
Enchantments, grabbed me from the first page and kept my interest through the final chapter. I was so intrigued by the story that I was told in these pages, that I simply needed to know more about these people. I wanted to know which elements were facts and which were literature. In the end though, it was Masha’s direct voice that intrigued me the most. Only a few times does she let the reader get close, and the most significant of those moments is a line that underscores her entire story, “No one escapes Russia with his or her heart intact.”