Rose Tremain is a new author to me, although hers is a name that I have been vaguely aware of for a while. When I picked up The Gustav Sonata after Simon of Savidge Reads recommended it, I couldn’t place where I had heard her name. As it turns out, my mum is a huge fan of her books. For some reason, I don’t tend to read my mum’s favourites very often, but when I do, they tend to be pretty exceptional. She’s the person who got me to read Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, which is a near perfect book. I do love finding an author when they have already published a whole load of novels, because it gives me so much to look forward to (although I’ll probably end up doing my weird not-reading-other-works-by-an-author-I’ve-loved-in-case-they-aren’t-as-good thing).
It is set in post-World War II Switzerland, and looks at what neutrality means and whether it is truly possible. The wider ideas of neutrality in the nation are also applied to the individuals in Gustav’s family, where maintaining face and behaving as one should are paramount, but this ultimately proves to be impossible.
The novel is split into three sections: Gustav’s childhood, his parents’ relationship before and during the war, and Gustav’s later life. When we meet him, he is a solitary child, who worships his mother despite her coldness. His father is gone, we don’t know why. A little life comes into Gustav’s pretty bleak life with the arrival of Anton, a young Jewish boy who suffers stage fright despite being prodigiously talented on the piano.
For me, this is a novel about not getting what you want, frustrated ambitions and the risk that comes with actually achieving your dreams, be they professional, as they are for Anton, romantic, as they are for Gustav’s father Erich, or familial, as they are for Emilie, his mother. These are all pretty unhappy individuals, who come close to happiness, even attaining in some cases the thing they most want but still are unsatisfied. It broke my heart in a lot of ways.
There is an enormous amount of emotion in these pages, but many of the characters don’t really let their feelings show. This isn’t to say that they are cold, or to put it another way, that they succeed in maintaining neutrality, and perhaps their ongoing insistence on keeping a stuff upper lip is the reason that they all seem to live such frustrated, melancholy lives.
This is an incredibly subtle novel, and although I finished it a few weeks ago I am very much still mulling it over. It’s totally deserving of all the praise it has received, and I really hope to see it make the Bailey’s shortlist.
Published by Vintage, 320 pages, 9781784700201