Book review: Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

This book is in bookstores now.

I just Googled images of Fabergé eggs, perhaps the most ostentatious symbol of the last thirty years of the Romanov dynasty of Russia. Exquisitely crafted, encrusted with precious stones, and all with a hidden surprise, these beautiful pieces have outlived and outshone a most awful time in Russian history.

In this novel, there is a Fabergé egg which has a miniature version of the royal residence Tsarskoe Selo, some 24 kms south of St Petersburg. First constructed in the early 18th century by Peter the Great, it was also the last home of the Romanov family before they were sent to Siberia for their final days. For Marsha, the narrator of this story, the beautiful egg, which she first sees as a young child, is her introduction to the Romanov family and comes to symbolise the tiny, unrealistic and controlled world they live in.

Marsha is 18 years old. She is also the daughter of Grigori Rasputin, that peculiar man who had such a hold over the Tsarina Alexandra, and apparently not just for his medical skills in his treatment of her hemophiliac son, Alexi or Alyosha as he is in this book. Who knows. There have been pages and pages written about this time in Russian history, films made, songs sung. This book is not about Rasputin, but it does open with the discovery of his murdered body in the Neva River.

With Rasputin now gone, the Tsarina looks to Marsha, an intelligent, quietly observant girl with perhaps some of the mystique of her father which is so appealing to the Tsarina, to take over the care of her 13 year old son. Somewhat shocked and alarmed by this request, Marsha doesn’t feel she can refuse. So she moves into the palace a bare two months before the Bolsheviks took over. From thereon in, she too is a prisoner in the palace.

She becomes a close friend of the young Alyosha, telling stories of her family, in particular her father, and recreates the lives of both their parents into some sort of fairytale wonderland/dream sequence which of course comes crashing down. Throughout the stories, which quickly blend with the reality of their imprisonment, there is a strong thread of erotica and awakening sexuality between these two. It is all very tastefully and beautifully done. At all times Alyosha knows he and his family will not survive – he is a well educated young lad with a fascination for the French Revolution and is constantly comparing his family’s fate to that of the Louis XVI and his entourage.

Marhsa, naturally, survives the carnage and here the book takes a slightly different turn. The magical realism quickly fades away as the reality of life outside the luxury of the palace hits home. After a marriage of convenience that takes her to Paris, she rather weirdly ends up becoming an animal handler in the circus – first as a horse riding acrobat, and latterly as a handler of lions, tigers and bears until the day she is almost killed by a bear. And even more weirdly, this is actually true – Marsha was a real person, daughter of Rasputin and animal whisperer extraordinaire – her father’s daughter perhaps.

Aside from the historical aspects and the strong narrative, there are faults with this book. Firstly it took an absolute age to get underway. For the first 60 odd pages barely anything happens, things just trudge along, not helped by the heavy, overly long and complicated sentences. Once the actual narrative gets underway things improve, but it is quite a way into the book before the author seems to find her stride and she is away. Secondly I did find the transition from being companion to Alyosha to being her own woman a bit awkward. After all is this a book about the last days of the Romanov dynasty or is it a book about Rasputin’s daughter?

I think I would have preferred it to be about Marsha herself. She sounds to have all the characteristics of a true survivor and I would have liked to have had more than the last quarter of the book solely about her.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Enchantments
by Kathryn Harrison
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN 9780007456062