Cover Image: The Tolstoy Estate

The Tolstoy Estate

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The title, the characters, the backdrop, the writing style - The Tolstoy Estate has everything I love in a book. I'm not a huge historical fiction reader but I couldn't pass up this book once I saw the cover. Combining strong characters and a captivating narrative, The Tolstoy Estate is a bit of a slow burn with a beautiful pay-off in the end.
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At the height of the war on the Eastern Front , a Wermacht medical unit commandeers the estate of Leo Tolstoy to set up a field hospital, despite the strident objections of the caretaker Katerina Trubetzkaya. Bookish surgeon Paul Bauer seeks to mollify her hatred of the Germans because of his love of the writer. 

The occupation proceeds under bitter wintry conditions that the Germans are ill-prepared for, while the surgeons face mounting body counts as the Russian counter-attacks start to take hold. Paul tries to take refuge in reading Tolstoy, while others resort to drink and other distractions. As it becomes clearer that the Germans are going to be routed, the behaviour of some of the occupiers turns extreme.

Strangely, this book reminded me all the time of MASH. Not for its humour, but for the portrayal of surgeons placed under incredible pressure in the theatre of war, leading them to adopt behaviour, ethics and techniques far from the professional norms that they once held. Conte sets all this in a grim evocation of brutal winter weather and a developing sense of gloom and ill-fatedness. 

I really enjoyed this novel, but I thought that the final part was a bit trite and unnecessary. It felt like a clumsy coda to a story that had already been adequately told.
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'If nothing else, we were contemporaries, I suppose - were all children, equally innocent and vicious, before jointly taking our generation's turn on the stage' - Katerina...

The Tolstoy Estate is very atmospheric book set in Yasnaya Polyana (Leo Tolstoy's museum-estate) during 1941 winter of WWII... Germans against Russians, Russian snow and frost against German invadors. Who better than Tolstoy (War and Peace) would see and know that history repeats itself...

Reading stories set during WWII is still hard and on subjective side for me. However, I have to give this book its dues. Characters are amazing. Paul and Katerina are so strong, powerful and aching that by the end I really wanted them to be together.

I found it really strange and unexpected that once you get immersed in the story, you loose sides and do not pay attention to your own subjectivity. You live with characters, feel for them and barrack for them be they German or Russian. 

The Tolstoy Estage is about people, humanity, human emotions, strengths and weaknesses. It is not even about Hitler and Stalin, invasion and defence. It is about so much more. It's like... It is about beauty of snow and frozen fields rather than frostbites. However, it is about frostbites as well. But them, frostbites, are there to bring  home the idea of 'alienness' of Germans on the Russian soil, their failure to recognise the enormity and wildness of the country, people, climate and conditions... Well, history does repeat itself (Napoleon would know).

The story flow is a bit patchy in places. Somehow I thought the story ended before the first post-war letter between Katerina and Paul.. But story went on... I found this setup a bit confusing, especially given the important details and episodes that would follow....

At the end, I was left feeling softly sad for the main characters but relieved at the same time... you'd have to find out why...
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Unfortunately there was an error and i could not download this to kindle shelf. I expect this to be a very interesting novel and look forwards to reading it when it is released.
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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
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The atmospheric cover of this book drew me into reading it and it is certainly very evocative of the time and place at the centre of this wonderful novel.

In November 1941, a German medial unit was sent to find buildings suitable for setting up a field hospital close to the front near Tula, which the German army was attempting to take in push towards Moscow. They choose Yasnaya Polyana, the country estate of Leo Tolstoy, which had been converted to a museum in honor of Tolstoy, much to the disgust of Katerina Trubetzkaya, the fierce and somewhat feisty custodian in charge of the museum. She made no qualms about her hatred of the Germans and refused to leave the museum in their hands, negotiating for her staff to continue caring for it. A writer herself, she gradually warms to one of the surgeons, Paul Bauer, who taught himself Russian while reading 'War and Peace' as a teenager, and is enthralled to be in Tolstoy's home. She finds him a copy in German to re-read and they start to enjoy conversations about life and literature. Both widowed and in their forties, they discover they have more in common than a love of literature. 

For six weeks, during the onset of a brutally cold winter that would to see the start of the tide turning against Germany, the surgeons dealt with horrifying casualties, operating for long hours to save as many wounded men as they could. Paul is horrified to learn that his commanding officer and senior surgeon, Julius Metz is taking amphetamines to cope with the long periods without sleep, especially as he becomes increasingly erratic and unpredictable. Even under these conditions, the men show their humanity, forming friendships, enjoying banter and coming up with schemes to occupy their free time.

This is a very immersive tale of a group of men faced daily with horrendous wounds, doing their best to save lives under appalling conditions and numbing exhaustion. Conte's prose is both strong and tender as he observes the interactions and conversations between the characters and the development of an enduring love story. About half way through the book, letters written after the war appear, interspersed with the chapters, and offer a glimpse of what happened to the main characters after the events of those six weeks spent at Tolstoy's home. Together it all made for a wonderful and compelling read that will stay in my mind for some time.
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This was a really absorbing read about a German army surgeon during the German invasion of Russia during WWII. His battalion stumbles upon and commandeers Leo Tolstoy's estate which has become a museum and the story references War and Peace all along the way. Having not read War and Peace didn't seem to detract from this book, but I imagine there would be more depth to it had I read that previously.

There is a lot about what daily life at the front was like in a medical unit and it was fascinating. I wasn't expecting to be so drawn in by that, but I was. And the banter among the men and the main character's jaded inner dialog were the real highlight for me.

The other main aspect of the story was a romance between our surgeon and the Russian caretaker of the estate. This was in no way romance-novel style, but very much a human story of how connections can be made over literature even in the most unexpected and hostile situations.

I would recommend it, and not just to historical fiction lovers but also to lovers of literature and the human experience.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC. The opinions presented here are all my own.
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I was instantly attracted to this book for its stunning cover, it being historical fiction and the incorporation of renown literature ie. Tolstoy. This is a very ambitious undertaking and the author does an admirable job in delivering the many finer details of a side of war not often portrayed. Seen through the eyes of a moral forty year old German doctor involved in a very immoral situation, this book is compelling in its exploration of the brutality of war in the harsh Russian winter. 

 “Are you a good man, Paul Bauer?” she said to him as soon as he sat down again. “Is that why you’re here?” He glanced at her sideways to see if she was mocking him. “Because I must say I like you better as a saviour of innocent civilians than as a servant of the German war machine.”  “The men I operate on are people too, you know.” “Just not innocent.”

Conte covers a six week period when the German army occupies the former residence of author Leo Tolsoy. There are many layers to this book. Firstly there is the confronting descriptions of being part of a field hospital and the detailed accounts of the injuries and many deaths. There is also a strong sense of time and place - Russia in winter - the arctic cold is very much a character in itself for this story. Then there is what the author terms his ‘dark version of M.A.S.H’ with the relationships and banter amongst the German officers. There is the romance (not overt) through a love of literature and the incorporation of themes from Tolstoys, ‘War and Peace’ between the good doctor and the Russian woman left in charge of the estate. Overall, this is a detailed and precise focus on one point in time and the lasting impact war can ravage on both person and place. 

‘Six weeks we’ve been here - the same amount of time as Napoleon held Moscow.”                                     
“I suppose I should be grateful you haven’t followed his example and burnt the place down.”                           
“Yet,” he warned.’

Interspersed throughout the war narrative, are letters written much later by the survivors, which assists the reader in understanding how this impacted on their lives after this six week period. This book is brutally honest and confronting. It is full of horrors yet moments of love (human) and reverence (literature) for what people cling to as an anchor to see them through such times. Somehow Conte weaves it all together for a complete exploration of German and Soviets during WWII and the physical, social, emotional and intellectual strains during a dark period in history. 

‘War and Peace also had the odd effect of restoring my faith in doing good in the world; because if as Tolstoy argued, we are all specks in a vast world-historical drama, even those of us pretending to be in charge, it followed that everyone’s actions were at least potentially equal, and that a humble person sometimes influences events more profoundly than did generals, emperors and tsars.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.
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‘Sir, we’re here.’

In 1941, Germany invaded Russia.  In the middle of the Russian winter, a German medical unit establishes a field hospital at Yasnaya Polyana, the former estate of Count Leo Tolstoy.  The caretaker of the estate is Katerina Trubetzkaya, a patriotic Soviet woman who is convinced that Germany cannot win this war.  The main German character in this novel is Paul Bauer, a skilled surgeon in his forties, widowed.

Katerina Trubetzkaya is surprised to learn that Paul Bauer had read ‘War and Peace’ and is a fan of Tolstoy.  A tentative friendship forms. They talk of their different pasts, life experiences and expectations, about literature.

Meanwhile, the war rages around them.  The commanding officer, Julius Metz becomes increasingly unstable as events unfold – poor decisions are made, and scarce supplies are wasted.  There are harrowing descriptions of the conditions under which surgery is performed, of the injuries sustained.  And everywhere, the shade of Leo Tolstoy.

Conquering Tolstoy becomes an obsession for Julius Metz, manic on a cocktail of amphetamines, while an appreciation of literature is one of the connections between Paul Bauer and Katerina Trubetzkaya.  They may be on opposite sides in this war, but they have a lot in common.

And then, surprisingly, about halfway through the novel the focus shifts.  A series of letters between Paul Bauer and Katerina Trubetzkaya which start in 1967 are interpolated into the narrative and the story shifts between the war and after the war. The ending I thought we were moving towards becomes something different, and a far richer story as a consequence.

Part love story, part war story, this novel is also a tribute to the enduring power of writing, of literature.  Mr Conte brings both his characters and their surroundings to life.  

I have finished reading this novel, but I am still thinking about it.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.  

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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Steven Conte’s erudite and graphic portrayal of a significant period during World War Two is an exceptional work. The characters are rich and credentialed, and the staging, deep in a Russian black winter, sent a conspiratorial shiver down my spine. There’s no posturing or surfeit of detail which brings this novel in just under 300 pages. The events play out in a little over six weeks, apart from glimpses into the future courtesy of correspondence between the two main protagonists, giving the story a crisp yet unhurried feel.

The hero of the work is the Estate of Leo Tolstoy, Yasnaya Polyana, its role while in the hands of the Nazi’s and the reverence with which it was, and still is, held by the Russian people. Ironically, Tolstoy’s great work War and Peace is central to the relationship that revolves around German doctor Paul Baeur and the Estate Curator Katerina Trubetzkaya, who starts out despising all things German but relents in the face of Baeur’s modest charm.

Tolstoy himself is omnipresent throughout the novel, his ghost said to pervade the estate, now wondering if great events are still the result of many smaller events as he theorised in W&P after the Napoleonic Wars and the French invasion 130 years earlier.

Full review with additional material see my blog:
Thanks to Harper Collins Australia and NetGalley for the opportunity to review this work.
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This was an exceptionally good novel. It’s the story of a German medical unit that has set up their hospital on the grounds of Tolstoy’s Estate in the middle of the Russian winter of 1941. The novel spans six weeks although in a stylistic twist, the author gives us the ending about half way through with the introduction of a series of letters that begin in the 1960s. Surprisingly, this didn’t spoil the tension of all that was still to come. Although, Conte displays such a command of his narrative, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this.

‘War is filthy, of course. It hurts and it hardens. But the fact is that for surgeons it’s also an opportunity. Every month we’re making medical advances: honing old techniques, inventing new ones, even upending a dogma or two.’
‘You’re a seeker after truth.’
‘Is that irony I detect?’
‘Yes, but go on.’
‘Truth be told, professional satisfaction is the least of it, because as well as seeking truth I’m also revelling in mystery. I delve into people, and you’ve just seen how strange, how wondrous that can be. What I’m trying to express,’ he said, ‘earnestly…’
‘No matter. Go on.’
‘…is that surgery is more of an art than a science. There’s an imprecision to it – a fuzziness, if you will – that’s maddening but also compelling.’

Paul Bauer, our narrator for this story, is a highly skilled and dedicated surgeon, widowed, in his forties, a German Officer who is not a Nazi, who, in all honesty, appears to not even support Hitler. He is a fan of Tolstoy and relishes the opportunity to be present on the great literary giant’s estate. There he meets Katerina Trubetzkaya, caretaker of the estate, a Soviet woman who burns with anger and realism. She is also in her forties, and I only mention this because it was refreshing to read a war story that wasn’t entirely populated by young and glamorous twenty year olds. These were characters that had all lived lives prior to the war, loved and lost, been members of political movements and developed ideologies of their own. Both Paul and Katerina were well read, well educated, and their conversations were lively and stimulating, all the more so for them being on opposite sides of the war.

‘Oh, they were grand days,’ she said, smiling, ‘thrilling days. You’ve no idea. We were poor, of course. Everyone was. But there was a feeling of extraordinary possibility in the air: factories would end want, mechanised agriculture would abolish hunger, science would conquer disease. People would be free to work as they pleased, love as they pleased. Some of this we even accomplished. Homosexuality was made legal, though that was later reversed. And literacy – there’s one achievement that’s endured.’
Her eyes were shining and it occurred to Bauer there was no period in his own life that he looked back on with such passion.
‘I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,’ Katerina said. ‘You’re probably a Nazi. Are you a Nazi?’
‘No, I’m not,’ he said. ‘In the election that brought Adolf Hitler to power I voted for the Social Democrats.’
She pretended to recoil at this. ‘Oh, good grief, one of those. If it gets out I’ve talked with a petit-bourgeois socialist I’ll be shot when our forces come back.’

Tolstoy himself is a vivid presence throughout the novel, and not just because the hospital camp is based on his estate. Paul begins a re-read of War and Peace and this novel, more than any other of Tolstoy’s works, becomes a symbol for Paul, a connection to others he encounters who have also read it. Katerina, as caretaker of the estate, has a great affection for Tolstoy and has studied his works extensively. Metz, Paul’s commanding officer, develops a different fixation with Tolstoy, a more bizarre and concerning one. He believes he can feel Tolstoy’s ghost, and rapidly descends, with the aid of rampant drug use, into a manic state whereby he believes he must conquer Tolstoy in order to win the war. Not a state of mind you want in a commanding officer. All of this is unfolding against a background of a war being fought without adequate resources in a country whose harsh winter climate will act as a hand of fate like no other.

‘To be clear, I’m not saying that the novel as a form will disappear, any more than poetry has disappeared since it lost its status as the most prestigious branch of literature. But its importance will fade. Everything fades, I suppose, certainly everything made by human hands, and yet I can’t help feeling bereft to witness this diminution of the novel, which for all its inadequacies has trained us to see the world from others’ points of view. To borrow a Stalinist idiom, the novel is a machine, a noisy, violent thing whose product, oddly enough, is often human understanding, perhaps even a kind of love. I daresay some might look at the last one hundred years and say, ‘Nonsense, what love?’ but if so they are naive because the terrifying truth is that it could have been worse. Hitler could have won. Kennedy and Khrushchev could have blown us all to hell. And who knows what other horrors we’ve evaded because someone, or someone’s teacher, or someone’s mother or grandfather, once put down a novel and thought, ‘My God, I am like that stranger’ or ‘That stranger is like me’ or even ‘That stranger is utterly different from me, and yet, how understandable his hopes and longings are.’ And in the future, as fewer and fewer people use these engines of empathy, what horrors will we not avoid?’

This novel is visually stunning, allowing you to imagine the unimaginable. It’s also a love story, and not only between two people, but more subtly, for novels as a form of creative expression. This is a really intelligent work of fiction that had me thinking critically and feeling deeply.

Thanks is extended to HarperCollins Publishers Australia for providing me with a copy of The Tolstoy Estate for review.
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