The problem with reading historical fiction is that you are never quite sure what constitutes truth versus fiction. Unless you are a noted expert on the book's subject matter, you are bound to be iffy on which particulars are 100% true versus those that have been stretched and pulled for dramatic effect.
In Robert Alexander's new novel, RASPUTIN'S DAUGHTER, the minutiae of Grigori Rasputin's (the Russian religious healer and trusted advisor to Tsar Nicholas and Tsaritsa Alexandra) last days are recounted with vivid detail and what seems like stunning accuracy, as if the book were a biography and not fiction. Retold from the perspective of Rasputin's eldest daughter Matryona Grigoevna (Maria), the myths of how Rasputin died are dispelled and a proposed answer to the question of how he was actually killed is spelled out. Much like his imagined (yet impeccably researched) account of the Romanovs' hideous executions during the Russian Revolution in the bestselling THE KITCHEN BOY, the story of Rasputin's final hours is riveting, fast-paced, and almost too comprehensive to be historical fiction. At times, you just want it all to be proven fact.
The novel opens as Maria is being questioned by the Thirteenth Section in April 1917 about her father's mysterious death. Through a succession of flashbacks, Maria describes the last week of her father's life in December 1916, set against the backdrop of a highly unstable Russian empire that is fraught with political upheaval and civil unrest. She recounts in great detail his numerous excursions to the Imperial Palace, and more than hints at the direct correlation between Heir Aleksei Nikolaevich's miraculous recoveries from hemophilia-related injuries and Rasputin's curative powers. She gives reports of his disgraceful sexual appetite and reveals his secret extramarital relationship with their longtime live-in maid, Dunya, yet also insists that he was both kind to and forgiving of his many petitioners and did what he could to alleviate their suffering. Through Maria's eyes, Rasputin is portrayed as a tortured and complex character --- spiritually gifted and fallibly human.
Possibly one of the book's greatest fallacies (and yet, paradoxically, what will probably make it more palatable to those who prefer his mysteries, written under the name R.D. Zimmerman) is Alexander's devotion to Maria's supposed romance with the mysterious Sasha, whom she meets on a boat while traveling with her sister and Dunya, and whom she "runs into" throughout the next few years of her life. Although certainly an endearing plot thread, at times it reads almost too much like a romance novel and some readers might wonder when the plot will focus again on meatier subject matters --- the "historical" behind the fiction.
All mushy romantic encounters aside, it is without question that Alexander has done his research when recreating pre-revolutionary Russia. There is much talk of princes and empresses, courts and royal feasts --- all intricately examined and lavishly portrayed. Vodka is consumed in copious amounts and secret, mysterious plots are being hatched behind every dark corner. Like every good Russian novel, the threat of deceit is always in the air and, in the end, what unfolds is a plot twist (as much as a novel based on fact can contain a "twist") that will delight even the most knowledgeable of readers.
Overall, RASPUTIN'S DAUGHTER is certainly enjoyable and enough to digest in one sitting, if given the time. What the book might have benefited from is an addendum that aims to separate conjecture from documented history, so readers (like this reviewer) will not be left with nagging questions about the book's legitimacy long after the excitement of the story dies down.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 23, 2011