A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK
“Part love story, part history, this novel is a tour de force [told] in language that soars and sears.”—More
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.
Praise for Enchantments
“A sumptuous, atmospheric account of the last days of the Romanovs from the perspective of Rasputin’s daughter, [told] with the sensuous, transporting prose that is Kathryn Harrison’s trademark.”—Jennifer Egan
“[A] splendid and surprising book . . . Harrison has given us something enduring.”—The New York Times Book Review
“[Harrison delivers] this oft-told moment with shocking freshness. . . . Masha re-invents our ideas of Rasputin, and the world of Nicholas and Alexandra is imbued with a glow whose fierceness is governed by the imminence of its loss.”—Los Angeles Times
“A mesmerizing novel.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Bewitching . . . Harrison sets historic facts like jewels in this intricately fashioned work of exalted empathy and imagination, a literary Fabergé egg. . . . [A] dazzling return to historical fiction.”—Booklist (starred review)
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|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Kathryn Harrison has written the novels Thicker Than Water, Exposure, Poison, The Binding Chair, The Seal Wife, and Envy. Her autobiographical work includes The Kiss, Seeking Rapture, The Road to Santiago, and The Mother Knot. She has also written a biography, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and, most recently, a book of true crime, While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their three children.
Read an Excerpt
The Hole in the Ice
Behold: in the beginning there was everything, just as there is now. The giant slap of a thunderclap and, bang, it's raining talking snakes.
A greater light to rule the day, a lesser light to rule the night, swarming water and restless air. A man goes down on two knees, a woman opens her thighs, and both hold their breath to listen. Imagining God's footsteps could be heard in the cool of the day. But God walks silently along the bank of the muddy river that flows out of the Garden, the river that divides and becomes many: Usa, Kolva, Yug, Onega. Narva, Obsha, Luga, Okhta. Volycha, Sestra, Uver, Oyat. Volga, Kama, Neva, Ob.
From the windows of the house that was my childhood home, I heard a river running. The Tura hurried past our village to join the Tobol, and the Tobol joined the Irtysh, and the Irtysh joined the Ob, and the Great Ob carried our cries and emptied them into the Kara Sea, which, being frozen, preserved them like flies in amber.
"Go on," Alyosha said whenever I fell silent. "Please, Masha, I like to hear your voice."
And I did; 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.
The day they pulled Father's body out from under the ice, the first day of the new year, 1917, my sister, Varya, and I became wards of Tsar Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov and were moved, under imperial guard, from the apartment at 64 Gorokhovaya Street to the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, the royal family's private village outside the capital. Eighteen years old, I hardly felt I needed a new set of parents, even if they were a tsar and tsarina. But every week brought more strikes and increasing violence to St. Petersburg. Revolution, anarchy, marshal law: we didn't know what to dread, only that we were accelerating-hurtling-toward it, whatever it was. And, as the tsar's officers pointed out, having summoned Varya and me from our beds before dawn, banging at the door with the butts of their rifles, anyone with a name as inflammatory as Rasputin would be an idiot to try to leave St. Petersburg unaided and without protection. As long as the Romanovs remained in power, they represented our only possibility of escaping Russia before it was too late to get out.
But first: my father. For without Grigory 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.
Word traveled quickly, more quickly than it would had any other man's body been dragged from the river. After I signed a paper confirming that the deceased was indeed my father, missing by then for three days, the police escort was to return Varya and me to Gorokhovaya Street to gather our clothes and what few things we cared to keep. But before we could climb back into the sledge it was surrounded by a mob. A crowd of people had come running to where we'd stood minutes before, on the frozen river. They came from their homes with bowls and jugs and cast-iron kettles-anything that could hold water. Some ran pouring wine and vodka, even perfume, into the gutters as they hurried to the Neva to fill their newly emptied bottles. I saw a samovar so big it required three men to carry it, and I saw an old woman lugging a chamber pot. Now, that would have made Father laugh until he hooted and howled and dried his eyes with the heels of his hands-the idea of an old crone ladling his ghost into her chamber pot.
The crowd surged onto the river like a wave and swept all the officials away from the hole in the ice, the one out of which the police had dragged my father, beaten and bloodied, his right hand raised as if making the sign of the cross. People thronged the hole. They fell on their knees, praying and weeping. The common people, the people my father loved, all along they understood what the intelligentsia were too blind to see. They wanted the water that touched my father as he was dying, the water into which his soul had passed, through which it had swum.
Thousands of people, tens of thousands-the officials lost count as they continued to arrive-came to the Neva that day and the next and the one after that. They came and they came and they wouldn't stop coming, from all parts of the city and from the outlying towns and provinces. They came over the Urals, from Siberia. Nothing could stop them, not blizzards, not cavalry soldiers. Squadrons of Cossacks on horseback took aim and fired into the crowds, and their nervous mounts reared up and came down plunging, their shoes striking sparks from the paving stones, pale pricks in the freezing gloom.
For all the horses I'd ridden in my life, I'd never seen any as spirited as these. Towering black giants, not one of them less than twenty hands high, they weren't shying at the noise and chaos-no, that was what they wanted, an orgy of movement and sound. The dark luster of each animal's coat; the volatile quiver of its flesh as it responded to its rider's intent, not to his hands, which were busy with a firearm, but to his will, which commanded the horse's body as if it were his own; the nostrils flared wide at the smell of gunpowder; the shrill whinnying and the sharp gleam of each hoof: in an instant, the sight and sound and smell of them had, like a whetted blade, pared away the rind of shock that left me, in the wake of my father's disappearance, insensible to every feeling.
I watched, struck still with wonder, as the air around the horses changed color, like iron held over a flame, stealing its heat. The officer who had his gloved fingers wrapped tightly around the top of my arm gave it a shake, as if to dispel what he must have assumed was my fear. But all it was was my succumbing to them, allowing their desire to possess me to the point that I wanted it too-the crumple and yield of bodies under hooves. Then the clamor around me ceased, all the clatter and cries and sharp cracks converged into words only I could hear, and my father's voice spoke my name. Masha, he said, be comforted, and though I wasn't faint, I fell back so the officer had to support my weight. At last something had caught and cut me, made me gasp. Until that moment, I was afraid I'd lost not only my father but myself as well.
The crowd thinned, eventually it did, but not before opportunists had set up shop along the riverbank, selling empty jars and bottles to anyone who hadn't brought one, as well as hawking bread, cheese, pomegranates, kvass and vodka by the glass, cider dipped from a pot hanging over a fire. Day and night, pilgrims stepped around and over stiffening corpses as they walked past the armed soldiers and onto the river, the gray ice of its surface slick with freezing fresh blood. They slipped and scrambled and pushed one another aside to reach the hole in the ice, because the water my father touched he made powerful. For the rest of that terrible winter, the last of the Romanovs' rule, St. Petersburg shuddered under one riot after another, and her citizens' blood remained on the ice under the Petrovsky Bridge.
At noon one February day, nearly two months after my father was murdered, I returned to that bridge and stared at the stain below. I'd come back to the city to sign our furniture over to an auctioneer, so the apartment could be rented. "We could chop up his bed into splinters and sell them as relics," Varya said as I was leaving on my errand, and I gave her a look. For all I knew, she might have been serious, but I, not Varya, was the one responsible for settling my father's estate, what little there was of it.
How, after cyanide had failed, and bullets as well, after someone had broken his poor head with a brick or a cudgel, had Father's assassins at last succeeded in killing him? They dropped him from where I was standing, perhaps. Dropped him over the guardrail and watched as the force of his body's impact shattered the river's frozen surface, gravity, which holds planets and moons and even the golden sun in its thrall, no longer innocent but an accessory to murder. Or they brought axes. They walked onto the river, bold as brass, dragging Father behind them, his hands and feet bound. Was he conscious? Did he have to watch his murderers hack at the ice to open a door to his drowning? The ringleader was a man he'd mistaken for a friend. Invited to his home, Father had come willingly and drunk the poison he was served.
The Petrovsky Bridge was bewitched, people began to say, and they avoided its narrow pedestrian walkway whenever possible, certainly at night, when traffic subsided and moans rose up from under its span. There must be a natural explanation for water making such noises as it flows beneath a frozen surface, but no one was interested in natural explanations, not that winter. And there were more curious phenomena, impossible to account for. In the attempt to wash the blood away, to remove the unwanted reminder of my dead father's continued hold over his disciples, cauldron after cauldron of boiling water had been poured over the frozen blood. Tinder was collected, saturated in gasoline, and set to burn on the ice. But the stain refused to fade. As if to accuse the assassins, it darkened and spread, and even reasonable people grew to fear a place where a holy man had been martyred.
Looking down from the bridge, I could see where blood had pooled and feet had tramped and bodies been dragged through the congealing red slick of it, each boot print and smear recorded on the river's surface. The hole in the ice never froze back over that winter. Too many people visited the spot, refilled their bottles from its bottomless font, rinsed their crucifixes, and kneeled to pray. The same pilgrims, some of them, left crosses and candles. The wind blew, it whistled and shrieked, but it knew to leave the crosses standing, the candles' flames burning, and the soup in its bowl. Someone had remembered Father's favorite meal and brought him a deep dish of thick cod soup, which steamed day and night through one blizzard after another, surrounded by a ring of water where it had melted the ice. Others brought boots, a gift traditionally presented to an itinerant healer, and there was a cask of Madeira, bottles of kvass, too many ikons to count, a heaped tangle of prayer cords, and silk stoles, such as priests wear, in gold, purple, red, in every color. Prayers, quite a lot of these, copied onto paper and, if the petitioner lacked the requisite faith, held down with rocks. But the wind let them be, rocks or no rocks. Crutches and canes and unraveled bandages, all testifying that, dead as he was, Father Grigory continued to heal those who came to him. No thief was fool enough to take any of the gifts his petitioners left, not even something as valuable as a pair of stout boots.
If only Father had remained that humble man, walking from one town to the next, he might have avoided so early a death. Forty-seven. With a constitution like his he should have lived to be a hundred.
A Red Ribbon
The journey by train from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoe Selo, sixteen miles to the south, wasn't nearly long enough for me to gather my wits. It was, at least, a slow sixteen miles, as the track had to be cleared of snow every day, several times a day, in midwinter. I told myself, on boarding, that I would use the time to write my mother a letter saying what I could not, for reasons of economy, fit in a telegram. But I never even opened my satchel to find pen and paper. Once I'd settled myself in one of the imperial train's velvet-upholstered seats, I sank immediately into a haze that left me balanced like a napping cat between unconsciousness and the hair-trigger alertness that allows it to spring out of sleep and onto a mouse. Scenery unfurled, splendid and sparkling, the last of the slanting midwinter sunlight flaring off mirrors it found in the ice. Varya, two years younger than I, slept sideways in her red velvet seat, her legs tucked under her and her hands caught between her cheek and the back of her seat in an attitude of prayer. Unbound, her dark hair fell around her shoulders like a cloak. Twice the train slowed, stopped, and, after whatever obstruction had blocked our way was cleared from the tracks, started up again.
It was dusk when we reached Tsarskoe Selo. A detail of cavalry officers greeted us at the station, and once Varya and I had disembarked, holding tight to our bags in defiance of a footman's attempt to carry them, the mounted police escorted us to a carriage bearing the gold imperial crest. Flanked on either side by a moving wall of horses and men, for a moment I felt my sister and I had been arrested rather than adopted, and I hesitated before climbing into the conveyance.
"What is it?" Varya whispered as she sat next to me.
"Nothing," I said. "It isn't anything." As the carriage started rolling, we each slid to one side of the seat, looking out the window at what we'd last seen in late summer, when it was lushly green rather than white. The sun had set, the moon was rising. The carriage lamps turned everything they touched pale yellow, and behind every yellow thing lay its purple shadow. As we approached the Alexander Palace, I saw that only the imperial family's private wing was illuminated-lit from top to bottom. From a distance it looked like a lantern left standing in the snow. But then it grew suddenly big, and we stepped out of the carriage and into a world we'd visited infrequently, and never without our father. Apart from Father we had no connection to the tsar and his family.
The trip from the foyer to the suite of bedrooms (to which a butler, housekeeper, and finally a chambermaid delivered us) involved a surprising number of double doors. Each set opened silently before us, obedient to its pair of liveried, white-gloved porters, and swung silently shut. With every threshold I crossed, with every set of doors that closed behind me, I felt that much more sleepy, as if walking ever deeper into a hypnotizing spell. By the time a lady-in-waiting had emptied our suitcases and hung up our clothes-I could not convince her, as I had the footman, that we could do for ourselves-I was on my back on my bed, asleep on the counterpane, my shoes still on my feet and my hands folded like a dead girl's over my heart.
What People are Saying About This
“[A] splendid and surprising book....Kathryn Harrison has given us something enduring – the last romantic figure of the [Romanov] era, a whip-cracking circus girl who was once an intimate part of a dying empire.”
New York Times Book Review
“Part love story, part history, this novel is a tour de force....[told] in language that soars and sears.”
“A mesmerizing novel.”
O, The Oprah Magazine
“Kathryn Harrison triumphantly returns to her historical fiction roots with Enchantments, the sweeping (and wholly imagined) story of love between two unlikely allies....Harrison takes a particular moment in time and brings it to stunning life....re-imagining history—and a love story—in a completely new way.”
“A surreal tale fueled by a legendarily randy real-life healer and his lion-taming daughter....A scrupulously researched retelling of the fiery end of Russia….Most of all, Enchantments is about the irreducible mysteries of human motivation.”
"A sumptuous, atmospheric account of the last days of the Romanovs from the perspective of Rasputin’s daughter, Enchantments animates a kaleidoscopic breadth of historical detail with the sensuous, transporting prose that is Kathryn Harrison’s trademark."
JENNIFER EGAN, author of A Visit From the Goon Squad
“Ask yourself who, in all the world, would be the best novelist to imagine being Rasputin’s daughter. Kathryn Harrison makes the answer obvious. Her Enchantments is a stupendous work of historical imagination.”
—PETER CAREY, author of Parrot and Olivier in America
“Kathryn Harrison locates within the crevices of history moments of poetry and passion that electrify the reader. In Enchantments, Ms. Harrison takes us on a magic carpet ride to Russia one hundred years ago, and with perfect grace, impeccable style, and great narrative flair, she gives us a whole wounded world that is for the course of this utterly compelling novel as real as our own lives. Actually: more.”
—SCOTT SPENCER, author of Man in the Woods and Endless Love
“Enchantments is wonderful: fascinating, informative, historically persuasive, and full of sympathy and tenderness for its endearing characters. This is Kathryn Harrison at her lyrical best.”
—RON HANSEN, author of A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion
"[A] bewitching historical novel about the infamous demise of a legendary dynasty....Harrison sets historic facts like jewels in this intricately fashioned work of exalted empathy and imagination, a literary Fabergé egg....[A] dazzling return to historical fiction”
Reading Group Guide
1. Enchantments opens in 1917 St. Petersburg, with the body of “Mad Monk” Grigory Rasputin being pulled from the Neva River—a factually accurate event. But Harrison writes from the perspective of Rasputin’s daughter, Masha, weaving fact and fiction together throughout the novel. Discuss the ways in which Harrison plays with fact and fiction in Enchantments, and to what effect.
2. During one of their first meetings, Masha and Alyosha talk about how his mother worries endlessly about his health. Alyosha tells Masha that Tsarina Alexandra believes in “the grace of God” while he believes in history. (page 24) How does the tsarina’s faith in God influence her? How does Alyosha’s faith in history influence him?
3. Masha and Alyosha create a fantasy world while under house arrest at Tsarskoe Selo. Of all the stories they tell each other and the histories they share, what passages stand out to you? Why?
4. Masha and Varya have a complicated relationship in Enchantments. Varya tells little white lies to protect herself, while Masha believes in the power of truth. Masha tells Varya, “There are ways other than lying to protect oneself,” and Varya says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. And neither do you.” (page 34) Discuss how truth and lies play into the novel. Does Masha have a point? Does Varya?
5. Harrison’s novel emphasizes the power of storytelling—through Rasputin and Masha’s relationship before his death, Masha and Alyosha’s interactions, and Alyosha’s later relations with Katya. Why do you think sharing stories—both real and imagined—hold so much power?
6. Masha struggles with Alyosha’s accident throughout the novel, wondering if he meant to hurt himself to distract his parents—and others at Tsarskoe Selo—from their plight. Alyosha tells Masha he didn’t mean to hurt himself, but she has trouble believing him. What do you think really happened?
7. As Masha and Alyosha tell their own versions of their family histories, they imagine how things might have turned out differently had their ancestors made different choices—if they had married other people, or made alternate political decisions, etc. How does the concept of fate unfold in the novel? What about the power of choice?
8. The devil and his entourage of demons, the Virgin, the Holy Spirit, a host of saints, and 630 Jesuses all appear in Enchantments. Discuss these religious apparitions and what they mean to and for the characters.
9. Alyosha and Masha are drawn to each other despite Alyosha’s condition, their age difference, and their unique predicament. Yet when they first kiss, Masha is so worried about hurting Alyosha that she can’t allow herself to enter the moment. Alyosha says, “It’s the only thing that does matter, whether or not you liked it.” Masha says, “There are other things to think about.” (page 155) What does Masha mean? How does her perspective affect their relationship?
10. According to the novel (and some historical reports), Rasputin’s death was widely predicted. Of her father and his unfortunate death, Masha reflects: “Once he’d met a man, he couldn’t imagine that man as a murderer, much less his murderer.” (page 201) Discuss this quote—in the context of both Rasputin’s death and more generally in the novel.
11. Masha and Alyosha’s relationship is cut short when she and her sister are abruptly set free from Tsarskoe Selo. Masha’s life takes many interesting turns after she leaves Alyosha: she gets married and is then widowed, moves from Paris to Vienna to America, joins the circus and is herself gravely injured. Discuss Masha’s life after the Romanovs. What did you find most surprising? Engaging?
12. Masha is afraid her father’s legacy will prevent her from getting her working papers in Paris, but in fact the Rasputin name helps her. She reflects: “The sole thing of value I possessed was my father’s history [and] his name.” (page 272) Is this true? If so, in what ways?
13. At the end of the novel, Masha dreams she is with the Romanov girls again. They are grown women, very much alive, and they want to show her a Faberge egg she has seen before. “But I know what’s inside,” Masha says. “I don’t need to see it again.” The girls all laugh and Tatiana says, “Of course you don’t know what’s inside! You can’t know. No one can. It’s never the same twice.” (pages 309–10) Discuss the meaning of this conversation in the context of the novel.