War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

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War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A 19th century Russian aristocracy family saga mixed with Napoleon's bloody campaign against Russia and Austria isn't a scary a prospect, in fact it's a ripping read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 1008 Date: December 2015
Publisher: BBC Books
ISBN: 978-1849908467

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1805: Napoleon Bonaparte is on the way to conquering Europe while what's left of Europe (including the Russian army led by Tsar Alexander) stands in his way. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky quickly gets a reputation as military hero although few know this is allied to his death wish. Meanwhile back in Russia the remaining aristocracy have no doubt that their motherland will win and so they continue with daily life. Pierre, the illegitimate son of Count Bezukhoff buries his life in wine, women, song and more wine but the death of his father takes him on a journey to find happiness, the long way round. 12-year-old Natasha Rostov dreams of love and happiness, searching with age-related exuberance and inexperience. The older generation are there to help and hinder as they take their places as pawns and puppeteers in the manipulation and social climbing that's become second nature… that is until the tide of war changes.

This, Leo Tolstoy's epic novel has become a metaphor for lengthy, boring and dull but remains a book on many a bucket list. So which is it to be: best avoided or embraced? Unsurprisingly the BBC complete with their 6 part televisual dramatisation and this, the companion spin-off translation of the epic are betting on the latter. The surprise is that, reading W&P for the first time, I fully agree with them.

The BBC have done those of us wanting to read it a favour in that it's a lot easier now that we have faces that secure the generous cast list within our memories. The downside of the spin off publication is that there's no list of characters to refer to at the beginning and the writing is both tightly packed and miniscule. The former didn't matter too much as I became more embroiled with events but the latter? I must admit to abandoning the free review paperback and buying the same version in e-reader so I could enlarge and space the print. Then the drama – and the magic - really took hold.

Tolstoy comes across as a chameleon of a writer, changing from complex family saga to almost journalistic view of the battle fields, each style fitting his subject matter. Surprise number 1 being there's nothing high-falluting about the language in this translation though; it reads like a ripping good yarn rather than something A level students are forced to read.

Every character is well fleshed out (as you'd expect if someone was given that long to flesh in) and diverse, albeit within their class. Take Pierre; he's reputed to have a large dash of Tolstoy in his veins and like the author (who desperately tried to follow his Christian beliefs) he seeks the meaning of life. Pierre's an interesting mix of worldly-wiseness and naivety, unknowingly manipulated. In the TV series, by either design or Paul Dano's brilliant acting, he's the central character but in the book others feature as much in the broad spotlight. Unlike the TV series which often bounces, pebble-like across the top of the book, there are back stories and moments that make sense of the people we grow to love… or dislike… strongly.

For instance in the series Vasili Rostov has the on screen charm and ambience of the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. However in the book he is excused and summed up with a single line: Tolstoy tells us he's not a bad man, just someone for whom social climbing has become a habit. That puts a whole new complexion on it and, although we still may not like the things he does, he becomes more understandable when set in context.

Andrei (or Andrew as he's translated in this version) is also more rounded in the novel. From these pages we understand the reasons why he treats his wife Lise the way he does and his regret of not loving her becoming part of his desire to go to war. Formed by his abusive upbringing at the hands of his father, Andrei is the cold single minded yang to his friend Pierre's indecisive humanitarian yin. Indeed Bolkonsky senior comes across as an incredibly cruel piece of work which is interesting as he's modelled on Tolstoy's own grandfather.

Surprise number 2 is that Tolstoy has a very progressive view of women for the 19th century. Helene Rostov, the manipulative product of Count Vasilis's loins would outfox Machiavelli himself. She's intelligent and her own woman, no matter what the consequences to her or those around her. Similarly Natasha (again the light to Helene's darkness) is in control of her own destiny, growing with experience and more to her than fluttering eye lashes and squeals of hysteria or excitement. Even Marya Bolkonsky, Andrei's sister and their father's doormat will eventually take the reins of her own life in hand.

Tolstoy the historian steps in when it comes to writing the superlative set pieces like the Battle of Borodino where casualties mounted to over 70,000 in one day and Napoleon's eventual arrival in a scorched-earth Moscow. This is definitely surprise 3: his descriptions are stylistically similar to Bernard Cornwell when in Sharpe mode.

If I were a literary bod I'd compare it to Anna Karenina but I'm not (never read it). I'm just an ordinary, un-colleged reader who is honestly shocked I love the book this much. It may have faults like the occasional untranslated French phrase appearing very occasionally or Tolstoy's occasional off-piste comments as he steps through the fourth wall mid-action. However it's interesting to meet the man himself despite it slowing the momentum sometimes, any fault soon becoming overwhelmed by the scale of drama, excitement and intrigue. If that doesn't sway you, just consider it on a price per page basis – definitely excellent value!

(Thank you, BBC Books, for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you'd like to read more about Tolstoy, we recommend Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett. If you'd like to try another 19th century Russian writer, why not Nikolai Leskov and The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories?

Buy War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy at Amazon.co.uk

Buy War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy at Amazon.com.


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