Becoming the people we should always have been

This is my review of The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain.

In the aftermath of World War 2, young Gustav Perle grows up in a quiet Swiss town, stoically trying to make sense of adult behaviour, win the love of his widowed mother Emilie, and live up to her exhortation to “master himself….be courageous, stay separate and strong…. like Switzerland”. Emilie is understandably depressed as she struggles to make ends meeting, making cheese and cleaning the Church, but is clearly ambivalent as regards her husband Erich, whose untimely death remains a mystery to Gustav. Although acknowledging Erich’s moral stance in saving Jews from the Nazis, she clearly resents the financial hardship and loss of status which this inflicted on his family, and she cannot warm to Anton, the Jewish boy who becomes Gustav’s best friend, despite the marked differences in their lifestyles and personalities. Anton is sensitive, a gifted pianist with wealthy, indulgent parents, but he proves unable to overcome his nerves sufficiently to achieve his ambition to become an internationally acclaimed soloist.

This moving and well-constructed books has three sections, like musical movements. For me the most powerful is the first part, the skilful and touching portrayal of childhood, and how we are influenced by our relationships. The second section takes us back in time to learn the truth about Emilie's and Erich's marriage, and the last leaps on half a century to the late’90s when Gustav and Anton are having to face up to the paths they have followed in life, and decide whether and how to change before it is too late.

Rose Tremain is an accomplished storyteller, capable of weaving an evocative, thought-provoking drama with a cast of complex characters out of a few strands of plot. Only occasionally in the middle chapters did the tone teeter on the brink of sentimentality, or the dialogue appear a little stilted as if translated from the German. A few plot details grated on me as unconvincing, such as the manner and timing of Erich’s death, or the two young boys’ game in the ruined sanatorium.

This is literary fiction with an eye to commercial success i.e. well-written, nuanced and thought-provoking combined with tragedy tempered by a feel-good soft centre and a few passages of raunchy sex – a page turner which is also worth reading.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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