Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte

Well.....I wasn't expecting that!

I am sure that I am not alone in expecting that, when I open a book, I am going to enjoy it. I certainly don't start a book expecting not to like it. It is, however,  a delight when you start a book and know that you are going to LOVE it within a few pages,  especially when it is an author you haven't read before. That is what happened with this book.

Dr Paul Bauer is a military doctor who finds himself stationed in Russia during the harsh winter of 1941. The German army is fighting it's way towards the city of Tula which is around 200 km south of Moscow - almost within striking distance of their ultimate destination. The medical unit is tasked with finding a base to use as a hospital when they commander the estate that was the family home and final resting place of Leo Tolstoy, Yasnaya Polyana.

Bauer is an educated man who read and loved War and Peace as a young man, and he is therefore thrilled to find himself living in the famous author's home. He is especially pleased when he finds a German copy of War and Peace still in the library after all of the most important historical items had been evacuated prior to their arrival. Despite his commanding officer demanding that the book is disposed of, Bauer begins to reread it. As he also speaks a bit of Russian, Bauer finds himself designated to deal with the locals.

Understandably the welcome that the unit receives from the custodian of the estate, Katerina Trubetzkaya, is less than warm, not only because they are the hated occupying army, who she strongly believes will lose this particular battle, but also because to the Russians Tolstoy is an iconic historical figure and so she is determined to protect the estate. It is a task that she takes very seriously. She is able to negotiate with the Germans to enable her and her custodial team can remain at the estate.

Katerina is a strong feisty woman who is determined to fight the Germans in any way she can. Of course, her resources are somewhat limited, but that doesn't stop her from trying using whatever means she has, including psychologically. 

As Paul and Katerina are thrown together due to the strange vagaries of war and fate, they are able to learn each other's story, to discuss life and literature, to learn that despite being enemies they share many commonalities, including both having lost their spouses. 

As the winter gets harsher, the ill equipped Germans have to battle the conditions, but also deal with the heavy intake of casualties, the dynamics between the members of the unit, and the increasingly erratic mental state of the commander of the unit, General Metz.

The author has not been afraid to share war in all details. There is no shying away from the kinds of surgeries that Bauer has to deal with, with the stress of being a surgeon during such periods of battle which leads to long hours of surgery, and grief that comes along with loss of friends and colleagues.

One of the things that was interesting about the structure of this book is that, for the first half of the book, it was a straight forward telling of the story. At about half way through, the narrative is interspersed with  a series of letters that begin to tell the story of what happened to both Paul and Katerina after the time at Yasnaya. History tells that the Germans never did make Moscow, but it wasn't an orderly retreat,and Bauer in particular didn't end up on the better side of the aftermath. Having such a change in structure could be disruptive, but Conte manages it with aplomb. It has the effect of propelling the narrative forward, making you wonder how the characters ended up where they did.

In addition to the actual characters in the book, Tolstoy himself  provides important context within the book. Paul and Katerina are able to discuss both the life of the writer and his works during this short but intense period. The other "character" is the winter. I know it is all about acclimatisation, but this warm blooded Aussie has no idea how people survive in the cold and snow which is described in this book.

As soon as I saw this cover I knew that I wanted to read it. I liked the fact that this is a WWII novel but it has a different setting with the main character being German.

I don't read a lot of books by male authors, but on the strength of this book I will be searching out Steven Conte's previous book, and for anything new that he publishes.

This was an excellent read that I highly recommend.

Rating 5/5

Goodreads description:

Epic in scope, ambitious and astonishingly good, The Tolstoy Estate proclaims Steven Conte as one of Australia's finest writers.

From the winner of the inaugural Prime Minister's Literary Award, Steven Conte, comes a powerful, densely rich and deeply affecting novel of love, war and literature

In the first year of the doomed German invasion of Russia in WWII, a German military doctor, Paul Bauer, is assigned to establish a field hospital at Yasnaya Polyana - the former grand estate of Count Leo Tolstoy, the author of the classic War and Peace. There he encounters a hostile aristocratic Russian woman, Katerina Trubetzkaya, a writer who has been left in charge of the estate. But even as a tentative friendship develops between them, Bauer's hostile and arrogant commanding officer, Julius Metz, becomes erratic and unhinged as the war turns against the Germans. Over the course of six weeks, in the terrible winter of 1941, everything starts to unravel...

From the critically acclaimed and award-winning author, Steven Conte, The Tolstoy Estate is ambitious, accomplished and astonishingly good: an engrossing, intense and compelling exploration of the horror and brutality of conflict, and the moral, emotional, physical and intellectual limits that people reach in war time. It is also a poignant, bittersweet love story - and, most movingly, a novel that explores the notion that literature can still be a potent force for good in our world.


  1. I'm reading up a storm these days, and always looking for a new title. Thanks for the recommendation!

    1. This is a good one to add to your list Beth!

  2. I'm glad they mix in Tolstoy's lit into this WWII novel ... Is it based on a true story of the German advance getting to Tolstoy's estate? Sounds pretty good.

  3. I've been eyeing this book of since it turned up on our shelves at work last week. I'm currently rereading War & Peace and it feels like it's really calling my name.
    Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. I've been eyeing this book from other reviewers. Yours clinched it, I've downloaded it. I've been meaning to read W&P, well, all my life. One day....

  5. I'm reading a book set in Siberia in 1907 right now. I need a break from cold, bleak Russia! When I'm ready for another Russia book, though, I'm definitely going to pick this one up. It sounds excellent.

    1. This is definitely cold so I understand why you would want a break!



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