Book Review: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Powerful tale of love and friendship

TheGustavSonataAbout the Book

Description (courtesy of 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.

Book Facts

  • Format: Paperback
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • No. of pages: 308
  • Publication date: 26th January 2017
  • Genre: Historical Fiction

To purchase The Gustav Sonata from Amazon.co.uk, click here (link provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme)

Find The Gustav Sonata on Goodreads


My Review

The Gustav Sonata is one of the novels on the 2017 shortlist for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. You can find a list of all the shortlisted novels here.

For two thirds of the book I thought this was absolutely stunning. Themes of sadness, betrayal and disappointment pervade the book and Tremain is particularly good at observing the humdrum, at times sordid, details of everyday life: the kitchen shelf that substitutes for a table, the freezing water pump in the yard, the cigarette butts that litter the floor. ‘He thinks how shabby the world is and how tired and old and full of discarded things.’ On the other hand, at times, there is striking descriptive writing:

‘Europe is moving, slowly, almost blindly, like a sleepwalker, towards catastrophe. But in the villages of Mittelland, the calendar of feast days and festivals unrolls through a fine untroubled summer. The valleys, with their plainchant of cowbells, lie half sleeping in the sun. The rivers, fed by snow melt and spring rain, bubble innocently along, in their eternal, gossipy conversations.’

In Part 1, covering the years 1948 and 49, we meet young Gustav Perle, living in shabby poverty with his mother, Emilie. Gustav seems to have done nothing to earn the coldness shown to him by his mother. For her, an important lesson of life is the need to ‘master oneself’. This is linked to the concept of Switzerland’s jealously guarded neutrality. As Gustav’s tutor tells him, ‘It means we believe in ourselves. We protect our own’.   This lesson is touchingly brought to life as Gustav tries to live ‘a mastered life’ as he has been taught while his mother, Emilie, is in hospital.

At school, Gustav meets Anton and, from the beginning, there is an intensity to their friendship that sets it apart from the ordinary. This is manifested in the strangely unnerving game they play during their holiday in Davos – ‘We thought we really had power over life and death” – and during which we first perceive the depth of Anton’s reliance on Gustav.

Part 2 takes the reader back to 1937 where we witness Emilie’s first meeting with Erich, Gustav’s father, and their ensuing relationship. When war comes to Europe, tragic consequences ensue from Erich’s decision to follow his conscience rather than the requirements of the law – the expected Swiss way – when carrying out his police duties. As this section of the book unfolds, we learn everything we need to know about why Emilie later acts as she does towards Gustav (the ‘peculiar chemistry of alienation’ noted by Erich) and her antipathy to Gustav’s friendship with Anton and his family.

Unfortunately, I felt the third and final part of the book was the weakest. The story skips forward over fifty years from Part 1 and I missed being able to observe the development of Anton and Gustav’s relationship in the intervening years. The introduction of other characters, such as Colonel Ashley-Norton, seemed somewhat of a distraction. The focus does return to the bond between Anton and Gustav towards the end of Part 3 but the change in their relationship, although not completely unexpected, seemed hastily rendered to my mind.   On the plus side, Gustav’s discovery of the truth behind his father’s death provides resolution to questions raised earlier in the book.

If I‘d felt the same way about the final part as I did about the first two this would have been a worthy winner for me but I find myself preferring other shortlisted novels.

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In three words: Intense, emotional, tender

Try something similar…A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale


RoseTremainAbout the Author

Rose Tremain’s best-selling novels have won many awards, including the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Novel of the Year, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Prix Femina Etranger. Restoration, the first of her novels to feature Robert Merivel, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She lives in Norfolk and London with the biographer Richard Holmes.

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

  1. I really enjoyed this book, but totally know what you mean about the big jump in time to part 3. And I agree totally with Sara about your “read something similar” suggestion – what a great idea!

    Liked by 1 person

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