At the beginning of The Gustav Sonata we meet young Gustav Perle, a small boy growing up in ‘neutral’ Switzerland in the 1940s. Gustav is utterly devoted to his widowed single mother, Emilie Perle, despite her being strangely cold towards him, but when a new boy starts at his school and an intense friendship starts to develop Gustav is slowly drawn out of his lonely isolation. This novel explores a vast tangle of human relationships, as well as themes of self-restraint and control, unhappiness, love and longing. Shortlisted for this years Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and the Costa Book Awards, this novel really deserves all the recognition it has been receiving.
This novel is told through three distinct timelines: in the first we see Gustav as a young boy in the 1940s, in the second we see Gustav’s parents years before when they met and fell in love, and in the final section we meet Gustav again later in life, in the 1990s. I loved the structure of this novel, and especially loved seeing how Gustav’s and Anton’s lives, a Jewish and intensely nervous young boy, become deeply entwined. The two lean on each other and learn from each other in different ways, and develop a strong bond that makes the reader question the limits of friendship and love, while the character’s seem utterly unaware. In the latter section we see Anton’s talent for piano lead him to leave the boys’ home town, and we witness Gustav’s struggle with this. Tremain managed to make me extremely invested in Gustav’s story, and aroused in me great amounts of sympathy and pity for him.
As well as Gustav and Anton, I thought the side characters in this novel were fascinating. Emilie is cold and discouraging towards Gustav, and is particularly critical of his friendship with Anton. She is also strangely silent about Gustav’s father – Erich Perle, a policeman during the time of the war who died when Gustav was just a baby – and while she consistently refers to him as a ‘hero’, she cannot seem to forgive him for something. The way in which Emilie’s character was explored and how we got to see a more full-bodied picture of her throughout the different timelines was engrossing and skillfully done. The relationship between Anton’s parents and their relationships with both Anton and Gustav were also complex and intriguing, and family friends and guests of Gustav’s hotel all played important, insightful and rich roles also.
There are so many complex relationships throughout this novel that weaved in and out of each other, and Tremain really crafted this novel skillfully but subtly. The writing is beautiful and simple – not overly showy – and was the perfect canvas for exploring the relationships and themes at hand. I really appreciated the clever parallel that ran throughout the novel, between the country’s neutrality and the ‘self-mastery’ Gustav is told he must adopt, an apparent virtue of his late father. Gustav finds however, as his father did before him, that it is difficult to remain neutral when life’s passions are demanding of you.
I loved this novel; I really enjoyed following Gustav’s story and found his relationship with Anton to be touching and fascinating. Tremain manages to create so many complex and believable characters and her writing is captivating. I was really impressed by this first novel I have read by Rose Tremain, and will certainly be reading more of her work in the future.