The Gustav Sonata is the latest novel from Rose Tremain, and the second title in my Costa Book Awards shortlist challenge.
What’s it about?
Here’s the blurb from the publisher:
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.
What’s good about it?
I really liked this book.
It’s an interesting take on the Second World War from the underused perspective of Switzerland and its people. Like me, you’ve probably read or watched a raft of books and movies about the war that feature Allied forces battling German troops across Europe, or the families left behind on both sides coping with the physical and ideological impact of warfare. Switzerland’s perspective – neutral, not invaded by Nazis but on the edge of other countries that were – is remarkably different.
Tremain sets out the Swiss mentality early on as it has such a defining role in the narrative and the characters she creates. Max, the tutor brought in to teach Gustav, explains how the concept of ‘neutrality’ pervades every accept of Swiss life and consciousness, referring to it as a coconut to help his young student understand:
[The coconut shell] protects the nourishing coconut flesh and milk inside. And that is how Switzerland is and how Swiss people 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.
Gustav’s father betrays his nationally prescribed instruction by helping Jewish refugees in need, his rational neutrality being overtaken by his humanity in the face of obscene terror. He pays the price with his career and, ultimately, his life in a fascinating narrative about the consequences of going against the status quo.
This is a well-written, complex and delicate tale about how our identities are formed – nationally, privately, socially – and how we craft our own personas within those boundaries. I was drawn into Gustav’s life immediately and didn’t let go until the very end (in fact, I read this book in one day as it kept me so gripped).
It’s the first of Tremain’s books I’ve read and I would certainly read another on the back of this. The style and tone of this book reminded me of The Book Thief (always a good thing), and there’s a pace and rhythm to Tremain’s writing that makes it easy to canter through the pages, absorbing the compelling narrative at speed.
What’s not so good about it?
If I had to provide a critical note, it would be that the final 40 pages were less compelling as I kind of guessed where the conclusion was going to go but that didn’t make them any less enjoyable.
This book really gripped me and it was a pleasure to read. It certainly is a strong contender for the novel prize at this year’s Costa Book Awards, and a worthy nominee in this very competitive category.