After finishing my last book at the end of November, I decided that with some time off work coming up around  Christmas, I would take the opportunity to tackle a larger novel. This is what I choose: Tolstoy’s epic novel, Anna Karenina.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I have to admit, that although I was looking forward to reading this, I also had notions of it being a fairly tough read. However this turned out to be a completely false fear, and after reading the last page this morning I can truly say that I was totally enthralled throughout.

An interesting point, which I discovered when reading the Introduction to my edition, is that whereas we think of Anna Karenina as one huge novel (it’s 817 pages in my edition), originally it was published in regular small installments in a Russian periodical between 1873 and 1877.  So the novel  is actually made up of many very short chapters (typically only 3-5 pages each), with Tolstoy moving from one storyline to another at frequent intervals. Often, just as I was getting really absorbed with the activities of one set of characters, he switches scenes and continues with one of the other story lines. So, what with all of these short, sharp chapters, plenty of  mini cliff-hangers, and the use of varying narrative perspectives, the novel makes for a very compelling read. In this respect I was surprised at just how ‘modern’ it felt.

Anna Karenina also covers an amazing array of themes: some topical and unique to its setting (e.g. farming reforms in Russia, the plight of the Slavic people, etc.), others common to all human experience. Love, betrayal, jealousy, marriage, family life, education, faith, society and death are all explored intelligently in the novel. These discussions never seem forced, but are always interwoven into the fabric of the narrative with great subtlety. Much is inferred rather than spelled out to us, and the contrast between the characters – especially between the two main couples,  Anna / Vronsky and Levin / Kitty, is striking as we follow them throughout the course of the book.  This is a master-class in realist fiction and truly a great novel.

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