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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Overcast
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A Book A Week: Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

I love the way Kathryn Harrison writes, but her subject matter is often so troubling that I don't usually read her books. I read Exposure back in the 1990s and have read nothing since, as her subsequent offerings have featured incest, torture, Chinese foot binding and murder, to name just a few subjects. Perhaps this is a backhanded compliment, but I know that Harrison's particularly vivid, engrossing prose will render these scenes too disturbing for me.

Still, I've never given up on Harrison. I check the reviews whenever she writes a new book, hoping for something I can try. Finally I found her newest release, Enchantments, a historical novel about Rasputin's daughter and the fall of the Romanov family. The reviews raised no red flags, so I tried it and -- hooray! I loved it!

Harrison centers the action on the mystic Rasputin's eldest daughter, Masha, and sticks mostly with the facts that are known about her life. However, she has imagined a chapter of Masha's life where she and her younger sister live for a while with the Tsar's family when they are imprisoned in the Alexander Palace, after the death of Rasputin.

Harrison's portrait of the family's isolation is moving and often surprisingly funny. Masha, her sister and the Tsar's five children are portrayed as a bunch of bored teenagers, albeit surrounded by hostile armed guards at all times. After Masha is released, she continues to correspond secretly with the Tsarevich Alexei; Harrison uses this device as a way to follow the family through their deaths in 1918.

I liked how Harrison portrays Rasputin. She alludes to the worst parts of his reputation (his alleged sexual exploits and purported influence on politics) but doesn't overemphasize them. He emerges more as an obsessive man than an evil one. I just read that the TV network FX is developing a limited series about Rasputin. I wonder if they will be as judicious as Harrison -- probably not.

Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.

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