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A moving novel about war, love and the enduring power of literature from the inaugural winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award.


About the book

From 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 wartime. 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.

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

Read a sample chapter here


Advance praise

‘Reading a book that is such a complete world, evoked in such fine detail, is almost wickedly satisfying. Like Tolstoy, whose presence haunts this elegant, intelligent novel, Conte has the gift of bringing the moral ambiguity and complexity of war and those caught up on its periphery to life in a way that is utterly engrossing and immersive. He reminds us that travel is always possible in the imagination even when reality goes dark and that literature always leads us towards the light.’—Caroline Baum

‘A riveting story of war, love and literature – Conte’s prose does not miss a beat. I devoured The Tolstoy Estate, it was a pleasure to read.’—Jane Gleeson-White, award-winning author of Classics and Double Entry

‘Steven Conte has written a sweeping historical saga spanning the second world WAR and the frigid decades of PEACE that followed; an essential novel about essential things – love’s triumphs and failures, the redoubtable human spirit, and the power of literary art itself. Tolstoy, of course, is at the novel’s heart, and in its very soul.’—Luke Slattery, author, journalist, Books Editor of AFR

‘An extraordinary novel. From the first sentence I was swept up. I felt like I was right there, In Russia, in winter, on the Front line, amongst the snow and the mud. It’s engrossing, beautifully written and incredibly powerful.’—Dymocks Chermside

I loved every word of this excellent novel. It’s actually the first book with which I’ve been totally satisfied for quite some time! This is a surprisingly powerful and moving work: surprising in that it has an extremely warm and human approach, and moving, in that in spite of the horrors of war, the author also manages to capture the spirit of camaraderie between the men. It is also, that rarity, a wonderful love story, and a paean to the power of literature. Much of this, I think, is due to the compassionate nature of the book’s protagonist, the surgeon, Dr. Paul Bauer, and also to Conte’s own sensitivity in depicting the joys of literature as a gift to be handed down from generation to generation.’—Annette, The Raven’s Parlour, SA

The Tolstoy Estate is a quite brilliant work of literature. This a beautiful book, not so much about war and field surgery – which are the settings – as it is about the relationships between a group of medics who are trying to support and patch up the wounded during a doomed invasion of a country which refuses to succumb. It is also about an unusual relationship between two people on opposite sides of the war, definitely not meant to be, but nevertheless destined for each other, and who eventually find a small, but nevertheless vital, refuge both in literature and in each other. Powerful and passionate. I did love this book.—Phil, Dymocks Carindale

‘Such a moving, powerful story of love, war, literature and longing. Seen through a German surgeon during the zoomed Russian invasion in 1941. It showed me so well the horrors of war (made iso look like a holiday) the camaraderie of war, as well as the gift literature is in times of crisis. I’ve never read anything like it. Beautifully described “a coil of her auburn hair, escaped from her ushanka, was frantically whipping her face” so poignant. Absolutely unforgettable.’—Anna’s Shop Around the Corner, Sydney


About the author

Steven Conte’s debut novel, The Zookeeper’s War, won the inaugural Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction; it was also shortlisted for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and for the 2007 Christina Stead Award for Fiction. The novel was published in the UK and Ireland and translated into Spanish. The Tolstoy Estate is his second novel.


A note from Steven on writing The Tolstoy Estate

What is it about the Second World War? Catch-22, Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s Ark, The English Patient, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Charlotte Gray, The Reader, Atonement, The Book Thief – readers can’t get enough of novels set in World War II. My theory is that the war is our Homeric era, a time when millions of ordinary men and women were suddenly forced to live on an epic and (compared to World War I) freewheeling scale. Plus, there’s the extraordinary scope of the war, ranging from the skies, the seas, deserts, forests, jungles, fiords, great cities and, in the case of the novel now in your hands, the former estate of Count Leo Tolstoy, three hundred kilometres south-west of Moscow, at the beginning of the severe and fateful winter of 1941.

The Tolstoy Estate is a love story, a war story, a ghost story (of sorts) and a hospital drama – a dark, Teutonic version of M.A.S.H. It is also a book-infused novel, a homage to literature and in particular to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is both an inspiration for the novel and one of its subjects.

The novel was born out of a book that’s little known today: Journey Among Warriors (1943) by Ève Curie (the daughter and biographer of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie) – specifically her description of a visit to Yasnaya Polyana, the former Tolstoy estate, just three weeks after its liberation from invading German forces. The Germans had established a field hospital there and Curie’s interviews with the estate’s Soviet staff revealed that everyone present during the six-week occupation – Germans and Russians alike – had become acutely conscious of the site’s cultural, ideological and even metaphysical significance as the former home of the author of Russia’s great national epic of resistance to a foreign invader.

Within minutes of reading Curie’s account I had imagined most of what became The Tolstoy Estate. As the son of a nurse and the stepson of a doctor, I chose as my protagonist a forty-year-old German military surgeon, Captain Paul Bauer, a good man enlisted in an immoral cause. At Yasnaya Polyana, Bauer encounters Katerina Trubetzkaya, the estate’s acting chief custodian and a once passionately committed Bolshevik writer, who takes years of pent-up rage at the Soviet regime and redirects it at the invaders.

I want readers of The Tolstoy Estate to feel what Bauer feels: the suction of mud on boots, the itch of lice, the sting of ice crystals flicked up on an arctic wind, the slog of performing surgery for forty hours straight. I want to convey the experience of two cultivated but otherwise ordinary people caught up in the machinery of totalitarian states.



Reading copy giveaway

We have 50 copies of The Tolstoy Estate to giveaway!
For your chance to receive an advance reading copy email HarperCollins with ‘The Tolstoy Estate’ in the subject line.




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