Friday, March 29, 2013

Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

I have a number of historical eras that I seem to be drawn to when it comes to books. Among those are books set in the medieval era, World War I and II, and books set in Russia, especially those featuring the Romanov family.

It was therefore no surprise that I was interested in this book when I first heard of it. The main character of this book is Masha Rasputina, daughter of the infamous 'Mad Monk' Grigori Rasputin, which is an interesting choice of narrator that I have only seen used one other time in Robert Alexander's book Rasputin's Daughter.

This book hinges on the premise that Rasputin organised for his daughters, Masha and Varya, to be made wards of the Romanov family after his death. The book opens with the story of his death, although it is revisited several times through the book, and so the two girls are taken to live with the Tsar and Tsarina, their four daughters (collectively known as OTMA - Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia) and their son, Alexei, or Alyosha as he is known. It is a difficult time to be associated with the Romanovs though.  The revolution is underway, and they are in the process of being removed from the throne. Masha and Varya are basically kept prisoner with the family and it is in this restricted environment that a strong relationship develops between Masha and Alyosha, despite the fact that he is 14 years old and she is 18.

The tsarina believes that Masha has some of the same skills of her father in that she will be able to heal the tsarevich who suffers from hemophilia. While Masha feels the pressure that this assumption heaps on her, it is really Alyosha's mental well being that is aided by his relationship with Masha, especially after he has an accident that causes a hemophiliac episode that leaves him bedridden. Spending time without other family members around, Masha is able to share stories with Alyosha both of her own past, especially the story of how her father came to prominence, of Rasputin's death and of the boy's own family. They talk of how difficult the tsarina found the role that she had married into, the relationship with her critical mother in law, and dealing with the cloud of depression that hovered over her. Alyosha also showed a very practical understanding of the current political situation and the mistakes that his father had made in dealing with the revolutionaries, and he was pretty much convinced that they were all going to die, regardless of the way that his other family members refused to accept this as their future.

Some of these stories were lovely. For example, the two created a dazzlingly dream like sequence of the life of his parents after his mother moved to Russia following her marriage. Nicky (the tsar) would wrap up his much loved wife in the middle of the night and take her out in a white sled pulled by white horses, and show her the city of St Petersburg and the country around their home in a way that just wouldn't be allowed during the day.

There are many instances within the book where the language is beautiful, but I think that I missed having a linear storyline. Maybe because the story is so well known, the author felt some freedom to not need to keep to a strong plot. After all, the ending for the Romanovs was never going to be in doubt. The stories that were told moved backwards and forwards through time, including after the family's death, when Masha eventually gets hold of Alyosha's diary and he tells of life for the family in the 'house of special purpose' they were moved to before they were murdered. While a non linear story can work for me as a reader when it is done well, this was one of those occasions where I found it a distraction.

One of the plot points that were there seemed to be a kind of sexual awakening between Masha and Alyosha initially, and then, once Masha had left the family, with a young peasant girl.  I may be sticking my head in the sand a little, but I look at my 14 year old son and think that it would be just completely wrong for the kind of sexual awakening that it is described with an 18 year old girl. I do understand that being in close confines would possible allow this, but to be constantly guarded and still find a way... not sure.

Masha's story continues after she is separated from the Romanovs, when she is unhappily married and finds herself in various European countries with her charlatan of a husband. Eventually she finds work as a trick rider in a circus, and in due course trading on her father's name before her career is ended in a horrific animal attack. My overriding feeling for Masha by the end of the story was one of despair because she never really seemed to have come to a place of peace within herself, haunted in her dreams by the past and the Romanov family.

There were elements of this that had a magical realism kind of feeling. As an example, the tsarina Alexandra is described as having a cloud above her head that would only disappear when she was happy and this was something that others could see. There are also a couple of episodes where Masha looks inside a Faberge egg and sees a representation of the Romanov's favourite home and the people moving within it. Again, nice imagery, but not sure what it added to the story!

As I read through the other reviews on the blog tour, they are predominantly positive with a couple that were kind of mediocre. If you think that this might be a book that interests you then take a look at some of the other reviews by clicking on the tour details below. It wasn't a book that worked for me though.

Rating 2.5/5

Tour Details

Link to Tour Schedule:
Kathryn Harrison's website


St. Petersburg, 1917. After Rasputin’s body is pulled from the icy waters of the Neva River, his eighteen-year-old daughter, Masha, is sent to live at the imperial palace with Tsar Nikolay and his family. Desperately hoping that Masha has inherited Rasputin’s healing powers, Tsarina Alexandra asks her to tend to her son, the headstrong prince Alyosha, who suffers from hemophilia. Soon after Masha arrives at the palace, the tsar is forced to abdicate, and the Bolsheviks place the royal family under house arrest. As Russia descends into civil war, Masha and Alyosha find solace in each other’s company. To escape the confinement of the palace, and to distract the prince from the pain she cannot heal, Masha tells him stories—some embellished and others entirely imagined—about Nikolay and Alexandra’s courtship, Rasputin’s exploits, and their wild and wonderful country, now on the brink of an irrevocable transformation. In the worlds of their imagination, the weak become strong, legend becomes fact, and a future that will never come to pass feels close at hand.


  1. Not sure about this book - at the start, I thought yes, definitely but less interested when I saw magical realism!

    (P.S. Saw Kate Forsyth - she is a brilliant, brilliant speaker! Went straight to the library and borrowed Bitter Greens!)

  2. I also have a thing for Russian history, and would love to read this book. My love for the Romanov's has been with me since I have been a child, and I so want to read this one, when I can. I am glad for your candor, and even if it didn't work for you, I think it might be one that I love.

  3. Thanks for being on the tour Marg. I'm sorry this one didn't quite work for you.