Book Review: ‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain

By Harriet Cunningham

The Gustav Sonata is beautifully rendered, and magnificent in its scope. It glows with masteryIan McEwan

With such high praise from the renowned author of Atonement, Ian McEwan, I recently decided to delve into the fictional world of Rose Tremain’s literary landscape. A Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller, The Gustav Sonata was recently shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award (2016) and I was, therefore, eager to make a start on this novel over Easter.

Set in a small town in neutral Switzerland during the Second World War, The Gustav Sonata offers a unique vantage point from which to explore anti-Semitic actions and persons. The book is split into three parts: Gustav’s challenging and fractured childhood, the initial meeting of his parents and their early lives together, and Gustav and Anton in their fifties. This temporal shift is something that I have always admired in a novel; it allows the reader to contrast the circumstances of the characters’ lives with ease. It is particularly interesting to consider how Gustav’s rather fragile relationship with his mother, Emilie, most likely evolved from her problematic marriage to his father and her uptight and harsh exterior which is prominently represented throughout the novel.

Described by The Observer as a ‘perfect novel,’ Tremain intricately blends historical fact with the fictional experience of the protagonist in order to create a convincing and engaging narrative. Passages such as the prosecution of Gustav’s father, Erich (for falsifying papers in order to save the lives of numerous Jewish people) are given particular weight when we learn that it is an episode based on a true story. Tremain’s extensive research, which includes interviewing the family of a similar officer, enables her to accurately capture the multitude of conflicting emotions in an intensely personal and honest way.

Above all, this is a novel largely focused on the notion of friendship, its limits and possibilities and the way in which it navigates the pressures of our fluctuating lives. At times touching and at others heart-wrenching, it is not difficult for us to draw parallels with the relationships depicted in The Gustav Sonata: the extent to which one may rely upon a friend without taking advantage and the exploration of inter-generational friendship (for example between Gustav and his late father’s lover, Lottie Erdman).

One of my favourite novels of 2017 thus far, and a relatively short one at that, The Gustav Sonata is certainly a read that I would recommend to anyone for the approaching summer vacation. It is rich with both historical accuracy and narrative subtlety, invoking convincing and personable characters.

Image: Penguin and Faye Chua

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