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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

‘Enchantments’ makes Romanovs fresh

Author Kathryn Harrison is best known for her 1997 memoir, The Kiss, an eerie book, somehow both passionate and dispassionate, about a shocking subject: her love affair with her own father.

To turn to historical fiction after such impossible self-exposure, as she has now done several times, might seem like a retreat, but Harrison's new novel, Enchantments, a Romanov fantasia, bears the same fidelity to difficult emotions that The Kiss did. The result is a strange and slow-burning tale, hard to forget.

The narrator of Enchantments is Masha, daughter of the healer and monk Rasputin. As the book begins, her father has been murdered, and she becomes a ward of Russia's final tsar and, in particular, a companion to his heir, Alyosha. Hemophilia, in 1917 a catastrophically dangerous disease, has forced this son to bed rest, and to entertain him, Masha begins to tell stories, some real, some fantastical.

This is a static premise, and there is not much momentum in the early stages of the book. But soon Masha begins to recount the lives of Rasputin, the Tsarina and other characters, and these looping chronologies become immersive — and indeed come to seem like their own subtle commentary on historical fiction. Even better, they draw effortlessly (and therefore, probably, with a great deal of effort from the author) on the demi-Christian jumble of omens and demons to which many Russians of the 1910s subscribed.

Though Masha and Alyosha are compelling, the book's greatest strength is actually its secondary characters. We know the unhappy fate of the Romanovs — revolutionaries annex the palace essentially as Masha arrives — and await it with some dread. In particular, the tsar, Nikolay, is a moving figure: martial, dutiful, unimaginative and here — humiliated by his former servants, his actions mechanical, only manners keeping him afloat — he comes to seem more tragic even than his famous daughters.

Enchantments is flawed. Its writing is heavy, gleaming and self-serious, like a luxury good, and lacks the spring and verve from which historical fiction, already prone to dustiness, can especially benefit. And it is a book with alienating aristocratic sympathies, the peasants either loyal Borzoi or heartless turncoats.

But Harrison has taken a tired subject, the Romanovs, and offered a fresh vision of it. Perhaps because in their backward groping historical fiction and memoir are closer, to her, than they might seem to us: After all, Masha is a young woman in thrall to a magically charismatic father, who sketches her relationship with him in a series of stories. Doesn't this sound like The Kiss?

Harrison herself offers a cagey gesture toward the recursion. Referring to Rasputin's powers of healing, Alyosha asks Masha, "Did he ever do it to you?" Rasputin's daughter misunderstands: "Of course he didn't!" she responds. "What are you talking about?"

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