The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain


Summary from Goodreads:

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.

As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav’s life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav’s are entwined.

Lovely, lyrical little book.  I have to admit to sadistic tendencies when it came to this one – I enjoyed the book most when the main characters were miserable. And we’re looking at post-WWII Europe. So people are miserable A LOT.

Another confession: I’m a bit dumb when it comes to the structure of this one – apparently it was modelled after a sonata (perhaps unsurprisingly…). I had some of my musical friends try to explain what this might mean for the narrative structure but I still don’t get it. Can someone explain?

That being said, the narrative works even if (like me) you have no knowledge of classical music. Goodreads describes this book as “tender” and I can’t think of a more fitting description so I’ll just steal theirs. Even people (like Gustav’s mom) who initially come across as deeply unsympathetic are given a backstory that redeems (or at least explains) their character. Tragic and sentimental are probably two other fitting adjectives. Take a look at Gustav’s thought process late in the story:

Would my own existence have been happier, if I’d never known Anton Zwiebel? And he felt, at this moment, that it would have been. (pg 235) 

This was my first Tremain and despite being slightly disappointed in the ending I’m definitely keen to give Restoration a go.

I find these reviews are getting increasingly rambling so I do apologise. But I am also determined to keep this blog as a record primarily for myself so I’m probably going to keep on rambling. Please ramble back in the comments.



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