"The Gustav Sonata" by Rose Tremain

The Gustav Sonata

Rose Tremain is a great writer. She is a highly acclaimed author with a back catalogue of novels which have won the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Novel of the Year and have been nominated for the Booker Prize. I have read several of her books and they have always been a real treat so I was delighted when NetGalley granted my wish and approved me for a copy of "The Gustav Sonata."

Yes, I was in for another treat!

Tremain often choses historical settings for her novels and always takes an interesting relationship or dynamic to explore within that historical framework. She always examines universal and timeless questions as well as conveying some of the intensity and emotional situations of characters within that setting. The appeal of her novels therefore is not only the choice of location, character and plot but also the stunning prose.

"The Gustav Sonata" takes us to Switzerland, 1947. With the shadow of WW2 behind us, we join Gustav and his friend Anton who meet at Kindergarten as their friendship develops and their lives become intwined. Here's some of the blurb to help explain a little more about the story:

What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in 'neutral' Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav's father has mysteriously died, and his adored mother Emilie is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav's childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.

Fierce, astringent, profoundly tender, Rose Tremain’s beautifully orchestrated novel asks the question, what does it do to a person, or to a country, to pursue an eternal quest for neutrality, and self-mastery, while all life's hopes and passions continually press upon the borders and beat upon the gate.

This is not a light read but it is not a difficult one either. Tremain engages the reader within the first few pages and quickly absorbs them in the protagonist's journey. This novel is indeed beautifully orchestrated; the prose moves along without drawing attention to its hidden depths. The weight and power of the some of the passages resonate quietly like the notes of a harmony- not taking centre stage or carrying the main tune, but subtly creating something more poignant and captivating. The images, descriptions, observations and insights appear with precise and careful timing but in a way that strikes the reader as effortless. Tremain is gifted; her writing experience obvious and her mastery of language impressive.

The novel starts with Gustav and places us securely in the period of history, the country and the mindset of the young character and his family. Gustav lives with his mother who's personality is well crafted, revealing so much of her inner emotional conflict through a glimpse of her movements:

"a thin woman with a reedy voice and straggly hair and a hesitant way of moving from room to room in the small apartment, as if afraid of discovering, between one space and the next, objects - or even people - she had not prepared herself to encounter."

Gustav has no memory of his father and there is a sense of mystery surrounding this man. Emilie is quick to point out that he was a hero and will remind him that "He was a good man in a rotten world," but there remains some sense of unease, unresolved tension, something that Emilie is not sharing with her son and even some suggestion that they were not a happy couple. It's a little hard to know how to respond to Emilie too. Her relationship with Gustav is not relaxed or comfortable and her frequent reference to his father's death seems to be implying something to Gustav that he isn't quite old enough to fully identify. She voices opinions which sometimes seems unsympathetic or full of bitterness:

"I think he is a nice boy," said Emilie, "but of course he is a Jew."
"What's a Jew?" asked Gustav.
"Ah," said Emilie. "The Jews are the people your father died trying to save."

There is an element of coming of age in this novel. We do follow Gustav as he grows from small child to school child to adult and there are some lovely passages where again, Tremain appears to be merely describing the physical details of a scene when in fact she is subtly referring to something more hidden - something deeper and more significant.

"Gustav missed the kindergarten; the Nature Table, the sandbox, the children's pictures covering the walls. There had been a lightness about the place, a feeling of freedom in the classrooms, as though outside the windows there had been pastures and woods and wide rivers, instead of an ordinary street."

The friendship with Anton forms a significant part of the story. I really enjoyed the dynamics between the boys, the differences and contrasts between them and the way their interaction affects them. It is really well observed. Both boys, and their families, come alive on the pages and the way the threads of ideas, concepts and both children's story lines weave their way throughout the whole novel is compelling. I also really enjoyed the sections with Gustav's tutor, Herr Hodler. I found his explanation about neutrality and Switzerland's position particularly interesting and thought provoking. He uses the metaphor of a coconut:

"the shell is hard and fibrous, difficult to penetrate. It protects the nourishing coconut flesh and milk inside. And that is how Switzerland and Swiss people and should be- like coconuts. We protect ourselves - all the good things that we have and that we are- with hard and determined yet rational behaviour - our neutrality."

And this is one of the themes Tremain explores in the book. How do we go about protecting ourselves, maintaining rational behaviour, staying neutral? What does this actually mean and how does it present itself? What happens if we can't? Or what if when trying to maintain these high aspirations, we actually set ourselves off on another, more damaging course? ("Switzerland, whose moral code is unimpeachably high"). This, along with the other significant themes of "mastery" and self control- is reflected upon by Erich, Gustav's father, much later in the novel:

"a moment's loss of control, a fearful moment's loss of self mastery has brought tragedy on his household and that his life will never be the same."

About a third of the way through, we leave Gustav and Anton and go back to 1937 so we can watch the relationship between his parents, Emilie and Erich, develop - and disintegrate. I actually really enjoyed this section of the book a lot. I loved the opening passage:

"1937 Europe is moving, slowly, almost blindly, like a sleepwalker, towards catastrophe. But in the villages of Mittelland, the calendar of feast days and festivals unrolls through a fine troubled summer. The valleys, with their plainchant of cowbells, lie half sleeping in the sun. The rivers, fed by snowmelt and spring rain, bubble innocently along in their eternal, gossipy conversations."

I enjoyed reading these sections because it revealed so much about Emilie; through watching her relationship and then marriage to Erich it was easier to understand her character, share her emotional journey into becoming a wife and mother and develop empathy for her. Similarly, Erich's professional life was fascinating. I think this is the first novel I have read which is actually set in Switzerland during the run up to the Second World War and it was really interesting to see the effects of events in Germany on a country resolved to stay neutral. Again, this intriguing, universal and timeless question of what it means to stick to a moral code, to follow rules which are designed to protect a country and how this is actually incredibly complicated and sometimes feels unethical. Erich is a great character. An ordinary man who makes one decision which affects the rest of his life and the life of his family.

There were some very powerful one line phrases which resonated deeply with me. For example:

"And that's what we're most afraid of- to look out there and see ourselves."

I also liked how Tremain wrote about Emilie. There is a balance between making sure we understand her but don't judge her even though at times, particularly when we are with Gustav, it is hard to fully feel empathy towards her.

"She is happiest when alone - if 'happy' can describe her condition. It can't; it's just less exhausting to be by herself."

This is primarily a novel about Gustav; a character driven novel exploring the effects of a situation on a young boy who unbeknown to him, events from before he was born will determine so much of his life and his friendship with Anton. But it is also a novel about compassion, mastery, empathy, ethics, sacrifice, heroism and love.

"when it came to the question of human love, nothing shocked him and never would."

In particular I really enjoyed the image of the children playing on the carousel. Once more Tremain's innocent observation about the children on the ride is a perfect example of a phrase which carries the weight and depth of a bass line in an orchestra, holding on to those deep long notes which subtly add so much more to the melodic tune dancing along over them. I think it illustrates the understated style of the novel.

"Round and round went the children, who held out their arms to their parents as they passed, most of them in greeting, but some in fear, as though begging for the ride to stop."

And perhaps one more quote - one message to us all....

"Wasting time changes the nature of time. And the heart is stilled."

I would highly recommend this book. It is so well crafted and so well written. It has some brilliantly drawn characters and is a real study in motivation, action and consequences. It's a really interesting moment in history to explore and basically, it's a real treat! Tremain has absolutely done it again!

"The Gustav Sonata" is available in ebook and hardback and the paperback is published on 26th January 2017.

If you enjoyed this book or would like to read something similar I would recommend Tremain's novels "The Colour" and "The Road Home". "The Road Home" is probably my favourite of her novels that I have read. I would also recommend "Jacques" by Tanya Ravenswater and "The Night Rainbow" by Claire King as coming of age novels and "Fever at Dawn" by Peter Gardos as a wartime novel about love.

For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)


  1. This one has completely bypassed my radar as I've read several by Rose Tremain. It's now safely on my wishlist - thanks Katherine.


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