Russia has never been my favorite setting to read about in a novel. I’ve never been that drawn to it, for whatever reason, perhaps because it seems so complex and foreign. When I read some of the classics by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, the details of Russian culture, like the long, multi-part character names, always felt like something to be deciphered to get through the story. But then I read this book and inadvertently came away from it with a better understanding of Russian history. My interest was piqued and I found myself searching for books with a Russian setting. One of the first, more current novels I found was Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison.
Enchantments takes place at the end of Imperialist Russia, right as the Tsar is overthrown by the Bolsheviks. The narrator is Masha, the teenage daughter of Rasputin, who is taken in by the royal family after her father is murdered. The Tsarina hopes that Masha will show signs of her father’s mystical powers and heal Prince Alyosha, the hemophiliac only son of the Tsar. Although Masha is not a mystic, she and Alyosha develop a close friendship as they are forced into increasing levels of captivity. To pass the time, Masha tells Alyosha stories, both about his family’s history and hers. It’s unclear to the reader, and possibly unclear to the characters themselves, how much and which parts of these stories are true.
I liked the meandering narrative style of the novel. Masha flashes back to a memory, then interjects a story, then makes reference to something in the future, foreshadowing events that will have happened by the end of the novel. This back and forth helped reinforce the sense of a blurred line between fact and fantasy created by Masha’s stories. That blurriness reminded me of the novel The Tiger’s Wife, although somewhat less engrossing. The Tiger’s Wife maintained a steadier narrative thread throughout both the narrator’s story and the fantastical story-within-a-story that kept me wanting to see what happened next. In Enchantments, Masha’s stories and reminiscences are broken into more discrete blocks and feel a bit static. Though the novel unfolds in a unique way, I didn’t feel any sense of character growth by the time I reached the end. Not a bad read overall, but not one that I’d highly recommend, either. My search for some good, Russian-centric fiction continues.