Monday, 4 July 2016

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

During World War Two, Switzerland feared for its borders amid the threat of a German invasion. It had already become a safe haven for fleeing refugees, particularly the Jews, but pressure was put on the authorities to send them back. At the threat of reprisals, the Swiss complied. This forms the background to much of The Gustav Sonata.

First and foremost though it is the story of two friends. Gustav is the son of a policeman and his widowed mother, Emilie, who lives a life of disappointment. Gustav loves his mother and will do anything to please her – he is a kind boy and lives up to his surname, Perle. Gustav’s lifelong friend, Anton is a musical prodigy and is capricious where Gustav is steadfast; talented where Gustav must rely on hard work to get ahead.

The novel takes you through Gustav and Anton’s childhood, then switches back to fill you in on the peculiar romance that blossomed between Emilie and her handsome policeman, Erich. The war places a huge strain on Erich – he is too soft-hearted to consider not helping the Jewish refugees, and this decision will have long-reaching effects.

The final third of the book follows Gustav in his mature years, completing the story of Gustav and Anton and their families. In this respect the novel is just like a sonata: a musical composition for one or two instruments in several movements. It is a beautifully written look at a corner of recent history, laced with sadness as it describes the on-going cost of events on a cluster of lives. You can’t help but have sympathy for Gustav – he has such a big heart but the love he feels is seldom reciprocated. The Gustav Sonata is thoughtful, moving and unusual little book, well worth picking up, from a seriously good writer.

Posted by JAM

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