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Kathryn Harrison writes novels, memoirs, personal essays, biography and true crime. She is a frequent reviewer for The New York Times. ( )

'Enchantments' Casts A Weak Spell

Mar 14, 2012

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A novel about the plight of the Romanovs during the Russian Revolution told from the point of view of Rasputin's daughter — the idea seems as delectable as a plate of caviar-topped blinis. And who better, one would think, to capture the blood-soaked snow, the religious fanaticism and the sparkle of jewel-encrusted Faberge eggs than Kathryn Harrison?

Harrison proved herself a fearless writer with The Kiss, an eviscerating memoir about her incestuous affair with her father. She has also wielded her glinting, unflinching prose in several squirm-inducing historical novels, including Poison, set in 17th-century Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, and The Binding Chair, which takes readers back to the practice of foot-binding in 19th-century China.

With Enchantments, Harrison hasn't let Robert Alexander's 2006 novel, Rasputin's Daughter, get in her way. While Alexander's book, like Maria Rasputin's memoirs, focuses on the death of the Mad Monk, Harrison's novel imagines a close relationship between the doomed czarevich and the famous mystic's recently bereft daughter.

Unfortunately, despite the upheavals at its core and the promise of mesmerizing delights in its title, Enchantments is less intense and enthralling than Harrison's typical fare. This is due, in part, to a somewhat disordered structure, but the book's bigger problem lies in its unconvincing narrative voice. Matryona Grigorievna Rasputina, bogged down with the weight of Harrison's research, comes off as far too wise and pedantic. We simply don't believe the narrator could be the Siberian-born daughter of "an illiterate, unwashed and exultantly ill-mannered" mystic peasant, never mind the Barnum & Bailey circus performer Rasputina became after escaping from revolutionary Russia.

Masha, as Harrison dubs her (rather than Maria, the name she actually adopted after leaving Siberia), begins her story on Jan. 1, 1917, the day Rasputin's battered, bullet-riddled, poisoned body was pulled from St. Petersburg's frozen Neva River. Amid growing civil unrest, she and her younger sister are escorted to the Romanovs' Alexander Palace in outlying Tsarskoe Selo. Czarina Alexandra, whose overzealous faith in the "ragged muzhik from Siberia" has exacerbated the populace's scorn for the monarchy, hopes that 18-year-old Masha has inherited her father's healing powers. She charges her with tending her hemophiliac son, the 13-year-old czarevich, Alexei aka Alyosha.

Shut in together for long stretches — especially after Czar Nikolay is forced to abdicate and the imperial family is placed under house arrest — Masha distracts the bedridden Alyosha from his painful, blood-engorged joints. She spins tales: of her father's life as an itinerant healer and insatiable Lothario, and of Nikolay and Alexandra's courtship and coronation. Her sexually charged tales arouse the pubescent czarevich, who presses Masha to make love with him because his life, he has always known, will be short.

In her desire to end with a bang — the dramatic if no longer surprising slaughter of the Romanovs — Harrison leaps back and forth through time, pursuing ecstasy in its various permutations: spiritual, sexual and artistic. The unifying theme flowing most prominently through Enchantments, however, is blood — from Rasputin's corpse and the czarevich's insidious internal hemorrhaging to the Romanovs' bayoneted bodies and the narrator's near-fatal mauling by a circus bear. Harrison has evoked a world awash in red; yet her novel, so dependent on her narrator's voice, is disappointingly anemic.

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