ENCHANTMENTS by Kathryn Harrison
Review copy kindly supplied by Harper Collins NZ Ltd via Booksellers NZ
I just googled images of Faberge eggs, perhaps the most ostentatious symbol of the last thirty years of the Romanov dynasty of Russia. Exquisitely crafted, encrusted with precious stones, and all with a hidden surprise, these beautiful pieces have outlived and outshone a most awful time in Russian history.
In this novel, there is a Faberge egg which has a miniature version of the royal residence Tsarskoe Selo, some 24 kms south of St Petersburg. First constructed in the early 18th century by Peter the Great, it was also the last home of the Romanov family before they were sent to Siberia for their final days. For Marsha, the narrator of this story, the beautiful egg, which she first sees as a young child, is her introduction to the Romanov family and comes to symbolise the tiny, unrealistic and controlled world they live in.
Marsha is 18 years old. She is also the daughter of Grigori Rasputin, that peculiar man who had such a hold over the Tsarina Alexandra, and apparently not just for his medical skills in his treatment of her hemophiliac son, Alexi or Alyosha as he is in this book. Who knows. There have been pages and pages written about this time in Russian history, films made, songs sung. This book is not about Rasputin, but it does open with the discovery of his murdered body in the Neva River.
With Rasputin now gone, the Tsarina looks to Marsha, an intelligent, quietly observant girl with perhaps some of the mystique of her father which is so appealing to the Tsarina, to take over the care of her 13 year old son. Somewhat shocked and alarmed by this request, Marsha doesn't feel she can refuse. So she moves into the palace a bare two months before the Bolsheviks took over. From thereon in, she too is a prisoner in the palace.
She becomes a close friend of the young Alyosha, telling stories of her family, in particular her father, and recreates the lives of both their parents into some sort of fairytale wonderland/dream sequence which of course comes crashing down. Throughout the stories which quickly blend with the reality of their imprisonment, there is a strong thread of erotica and awakening sexuality between these two. It is all very tastefully and beautifully done. At all times Alyosha knows he and his family will not survive - he is a well educated young lad with a fascination for the French Revolution and is constantly comparing his family's fate to that of the Louis XVI and his entourage.
Marhsa, naturally, survives the carnage and here the book takes a slightly different turn. The magical realism quickly fades away as the reality of life outside the luxury of the palace hits home. After a marriage of convenience that takes her to Paris, she rather weirdly ends up becoming an animal handler in the circus - first as a horse riding acrobat, and latterly as a handler of lions, tigers and bears until the day she is almost killed by a bear. And even more weirdly, this is actually true - Marsha was a real person, daughter of Rasputin and animal whisperer extraordinaire - her father's daughter perhaps.
Aside from the historical aspects and the strong narrative, there are faults with this book. Firstly it took an absolute age to get underway. For the first 60 odd pages barely anything happens, things just trudge along, not helped by the heavy, overly long and complicated sentences. Once the actual narrative gets underway things improve, but it is quite a way into the book before the author seems to find her stride and she is away. Secondly I did find the transition from being companion to Alyosha to being her own woman a bit awkward. After all is this a book about the last days of the Romanov dynasty or is it a book about Rasputin's daughter?
I think I would have preferred it to be about Marsha herself. She sounds to have all the characteristics of a true survivor and I would have liked to have had more than the last quarter of the book solely about her.
INCENDIARY by Chris Cleave
What better way to get to the heart of the British heart and soul than blowing up a packed soccer stadium in London? Total deaths and missing - 1000+; injured whether it be physically, emotionally or mentally - uncountable.
A woman loses her husband and four year old son in the terrorist attack and so begins her grief-filled and traumatic account as she attempts to pick up the pieces of her life and start again. Naturally, as a mother, she feels guilt for the death of her child, that it is her fault, that she has done something to bring it about. By no means is she a perfect wife, and she has not had the easiest of lives. As a result she could be any of us, and although not always a likeable character, she is very real, as mixed up and complicated as the rest of us.
Her grief is raw, so raw and unchecked, she spends most of the book teetering on the brink of insanity. As a form of self-therapy, she writes a letter to Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the terrorist attack, telling her sad story. Her aim is to appeal to his sense of decency, if he has any, appeal to the fact that he too is a parent, and the what his attack has done to the ordinary little person on the street. Mind you, I could easily imagine a widow in Kabul pouring her broken heart out to the likes of George Bush or Tony Blair - women and children: the most broken and damaged by the wars perpetrated by their leaders.
Our narrator, nameless, as are her son and husband, has a dreadful time dealing with her losses. As do many, many other people in London. The reader gets an inkling of this as she goes about her daily life - the trauma is extreme. With all intention of doing honorable things and resorting their lives, the characters in the story are simply unable to deal with what has happened.
Despite the ghastly subject matter, this is a book well worth reading. The author writes in such a way, that everything in the book - the plot and the characters are totally believable and real. We ache for things to turn out ok for the narrator, for things to get better, and at times it looks possible. But her grief is so overwhelming that the downward spiral becomes inevitable.
Uncannily this book was launched in London the day before the London bombings of 2005. The book was immediately shelved, the book tour stopped, all publicity and promotional material withdrawn. In the US however, publication went ahead and the book was an immediate success - maybe quite timely as many people perhaps would have identified with the loss in the story.
BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S by Truman Capote
Never having read any of Truman Capote, and with the slight revival of modern classics taking place in the book club, I thought it very timely to put this one in. Forever fascinated by the luminous Audrey Hepburn, and knowing all the words to Moon River, I started this story thinking I was going to be in for a delicious treat. Not so.
Firstly, Holly Golightly in the novel is nothing like Holly Golightly in the movie. Secondly there is really nothing delicious or romantic or luminous about Miss Holly Golightly, formerly known as Lulamae Barnes. Thirdly, she never does reunite with her cat as she does in the film. She is essentially a prostitute, with not a cent to her name, living off a number of rich and besotted admirers. Naive yes, optimistic and refreshing yes, beautiful and entrancing yes. But also damaged, a shop lifter, user of other people, completely irresponsible and unable to look after herself.
The story, such as it is, is narrated by a young man, whose name we are never told, but whom Holly calls Fred after her beloved brother. He is an aspiring writer, who is completely bewitched by Holly. The relationship remains platonic, but they become very good friends, although the friendship is always on her terms. Our narrator meets Holly in the apartment building they live in New York City, sometime after WWII. This is not a plot based story, more a character study of Holly's self-destructiveness, and the effects of her behaviour on those around her.
Every now again people like Holly briefly enter and then exit our lives. Mercurial, demanding and exhausting, they leave an indelible impression and despite the problems they have and bring to any relationship, their sudden absence almost brings about a grieving process. So it is with Holly. This is a much darker, and more serious look at the lives of post-war young things in urban American society. I imagine at the time it was published it caused a bit of a furore, as it touches on women being in charge of their own destiny with not a care for those they leave behind.
I liked the story very much. Despite her issues, I liked Holly; her sheer joie de vivre is enough to make anybody's day a bit brighter. And as for Tiffany's? Naturally it is where she wants to be someday, but all she can manage to purchase from that store is a set of business cards - Holly Golightly, Travelling.
TWELVE MINUTES OF LOVE - A TANGO STORY by Kapka Kassabova
Tango! The passion, the intensity, the romance, the seduction, the pure escapism! From its dark beginnings with African slavery to the ghettos of Buenos Aires, to the salons of Europe one hundred years ago, tango, in its various forms, is now danced in dozens of different countries around the world and by people of many more nationalities. What is about this dance that captivates, seduces, and changes people's lives?
Kapka Kassabova has written a very personal and emotional account of her ten year love affair with tango. Kapka migrated from Bulgaria as a child with her family in the early 1990s to New Zealand. She grew up in New Zealand, loves her new country and the people she meets, but you get the feeling that there is always something missing, as if she has still not found her place, her niche. Already a published author when this book begins, Kapka one day finds herself wandering into a cafe in Auckland during tango night. Immediately hooked, completely smitten and overtaken by tango bug, it seems that everything else in her life for the next ten years takes a very distant more than second place.
Which gives us the most intimate and personal insight into the heart and soul of this beautifully talented writer. In the material consumer-oriented world we live in, our busy lives running us ragged - jobs, family, relationships, children, etc etc, there is something almost ethereal, something very basic and fundamental about such a passion for a dance form that seems to reach very deeply inside us all.
From Auckland to Buenos Aires, to Edinburgh, to Montevideo with return visits to BA and to Auckland in-between times, Kapka absorbs absolutely everything she possibly can about tango - the music, the moves, the history, the famous dancers and teachers, her partners, her lovers - until she finally reaches saturation point. And what a wonderful, rich, poignant, and incredibly personal account it is. Tango is like a drug - addictive, mind and soul altering, far reaching, almost unattainable and ever so scary. Read this, at your peril, and find yourself swept away into a whole new world.
Posted by Kiwiflora