I am probably quite the stuck record when it comes to this, but hey ho my blog my rules and foibles, but when an author I love has a new book out I get excited and I get nervous. The latter tends to win in the reading part of my brain and so I put off reading the book because I am scared it might not be as amazing as I want it to be. Pessimism, another foible of mine. In the case of Rose Tremain’s latest novel The Gustav Sonata I couldn’t have been more wrong as I think this might be my favourite novel of hers yet.
At the age of five, Gustav Perle was certain of only one thing: he loved his mother.
Her name was Emilie, but everybody addressed her as Frau Perle. (In Switzerland , at that time, after the war, people were formal. You might pass a lifetime without knowing the first name of your nearest neighbour.) Gustav called Emilie Perle ‘Mutti’. She would be ‘Mutti’ all his life, even when the name began to sound babyish to him: his Mutti, his alone, 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.
As The Gustav Sonata opens we are instantly thrown into the slightly claustrophobic and cloying world of Gustav Perle. Living alone with his mother, after the death of his father which no one ever talks about, he lives a sheltered life where his mother struggles to make ends meet. Whilst his father his absent his presence is anything but, yet it must not be discussed or questioned. Without realising it Gustav is living quite an unhappy life until he befriends a boy new to the neighbourhood, Anton. As Anton and his mysterious background come into Gustav’s life so do the questions that he has never asked or even contemplated.
One or two of the apartment residents arrived in the courtyard and stopped to smile at the two boys dancing around the old cherry tree. Later, when Anton had gone home, Emilie said, ‘I suppose there may not be any cherry trees in Bern. It’s unlikely, but one can’t say for sure. Perhaps he had never seen one before?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Gustav.
‘I think he’s 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.’
Anton therefore in many ways brings as much lightness as he does darkness into Gustav’s life, something Tremain keeps bringing up and we see repeating throughout. On the one hand he has the kind of friendship he has always dreamed of, certainly the opposite to one with one of his neighbours sons. He also, through Anton’s parents and situation gets introduced to a world unlike any he has known, here the conflicts come in. He lives on the breadline while Anton lives a life of spoils, Anton is set to be a prodigal pianist whilst Gustav has never been given any drive or belief, Anton’s family are loving and caring to him while Emilie is somewhat cold and unstable. These contrasts naturally cause Gustav some internal turmoil.
Here is one of the main strengths of Tremain’s writing and the novel. Facades, which is really what lies at the heart of The Gustav Sonata, the facades we create for ourselves and for others. Gustav sees Anton’s life as perfect, yet Tremain shows us as readers that this is not always the case. This is always something that I love in fiction, where we get to know more than the characters and what lies around them, yet Tremain makes it anything but predictable, again something I have always loved in her writing since I started reading her work a few years ago. I am fanboying aren’t I? I don’t even care, it’s all true.
‘Won’t your parents think this is odd? They might not want us to play here.’
‘We won’t tell them,’ said Anton.
‘Where will they think we are?’
‘Just “exploring”. On holidays, when she doesn’t want me around, my mother’s always saying “Why don’t you go exploring, Anton?” We’ll tell them we’re building a camp in the forest. And anyway, they’ll be fucking.’
‘It’s what they like to do on holiday. They go to bed and take their clothes off and kiss and scream things out, It’s called fucking.’
Moments like this in the novel are ones where Rose Tremain does so much with so little. Reading this part of the book as adults we see that actually Anton’s parents are not living the perfect life that he or Gustav believe, they are actually there to try to save their marriage. We also see, without spoilers, that Tremain cleverly creates several analogies as the boys’ adventure in the atmosphere of the Alps foreign climbs. When you have read the book you will know what I mean. From a character level, we also get to see how much Gustav looks up to Anton and how truly shielded from the world he is and how soon the two embrace freedom to the full. It is here that something happens which has effects that ripple throughout the book and of which I will say no more or you will not be weeping at the end of the book like I was, with a mix of sadness and utter joy.
Yet The Gustav Sonata is not just about Gustav. There is a second story with the pages of this book which reveals itself within the second part, of three, in the novel. This is the story of Gustav’s father Erich and how he meets Emilie and what happens in the lead up to his absence in the house. That said though, this being Rose Tremain it isn’t that simple and the full reveal doesn’t come until a point you least expect it. Moving on, for fear of spoilers as this is a twisty wonderful book, there is once again layers to this second story which take us in directions we least expect and see characters again doing this we may personally fathom but boy are they interesting to read. It also highlights again how the history of our families and what has gone before us can shape both our personalities and upbringing even when we don’t ourselves see it as children. Something I personally find really fascinating.
Tremain remains like Switzerland throughout, neutral. Don’t mistake that for a lack of passion for her characters or the situations which they find themselves in, good or bad. It is this neutrality – which I think is always in her work and is one of the things that I like so much about it – that leaves the reader to place their emotions and their own moral compass, you have to ask ‘well what would I do?’ and ‘how would I feel in those circumstances in that time in that society?’ All of this only makes the novel all the more powerful and the readers emotional investment all the greater. And like I said this book had me an emotional mess by the end, as all the best books do.
If you hadn’t guessed, I loved The Gustav Sonata. I read it at the very end of last year and it was just what I needed, a novel that reminded me why I read and the power of a great book. I also think it is my favourite of all the Rose Tremain novels and short stories I have read since I have started reading her work, which my Gran told me to do when she was terminally ill as she was sure Tremain is an author I ‘would get’ or vice versa. I find it very odd that she won’t read this book, anyway before I get all emotional about that and the book… Suffice to say I think that if you haven’t read it yet then I strongly urge you to. It is one of the best novels I have read in some time.
If you haven’t got yourself a copy then you can here. I have no idea how the Bailey’s judges are going to choose a winner between this and The Essex Serpent which were both two of my books of last year. That said I am now reading the whole longlist and having read a few of the first chapters of some of them it is looking like a really strong longlist. Have any of you read The Gustav Sonata and if so what did you think? What about Rose Tremain’s other novels and collections?