The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

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The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Nominated for the Costa novel award 2016, The Gustav Sonata is a delight to read. It's deceptively simple - an effect which is only achieved by an author at the height of their powers. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256/9h3m Date: May 2016
Publisher: Chatto and Windus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1784740030

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Longlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction 2017

Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017

Gustav Perle grew up in a small town in neutral Switzerland: the horrors of the Second World War seemed distant, but neutrality was maintained partly at the expense of those who would seek refuge in the country. Gustav's father died in mysterious circumstances and whilst Gustav adored his mother, Emilie, she was cold and indifferent to him. Until he met Anton Zwiebel he was a lonely child with just one toy, a tin train, but he and Anton met at kindergarten where it fell to Gustav to look after the nervous boy. Anton is Jewish and he's a talented pianist, but he lacks the confidence to perform in public. Throughout much of his life he relies on Gustav's support, but fails to appreciate just how important, how necessary it is to his wellbeing.

Emilie stressed to Gustav the importance of 'self-mastery', of being in control of one's self at all times no matter what hopes and passions try to sway you and this is elegantly mirrored by the situation in which Switzerland found itself in the war. After Germany's annexation of Austria there was one obvious destination for Jews fleeing the country and that was Switzerland, but by giving refuge Switzerland put its treasured neutrality in danger - it could provoke a German invasion. But what does it do to a person or to a country to pursue this endless quest for neutrality, for self-mastery?

Gustav's father Erich was a senior policeman but lost his job when he helped Jews fleeing Austria to get around the laws which prevented their legal entry into the country. His mother refers to him as a 'hero' but cannot forgive him for losing his job and leaving her and Gustav in dramatically reduced circumstances; lacking a kitchen table, they eat off a shelf and Emilie cannot get beyond her belief that Gustav holds this against her. Whilst Erich was alive her feelings about the plight of the Jews was at best indifference and an unwillingness to remedy her ignorance about what was happening. Years later she's at best ambivalent to the friendship between Gustav and Anton.

Rose Tremain doesn't judge her characters, in fact, you suspect a reluctance to allow them to judge each other: when Gustav is told that a friend is a 'courtesan' he stresses that it doesn't matter and it seems not to change the relationship. But we read between the lines and do judge. We judge Anton when he's cavalier with Gustav's feelings, Erich when he betrays Emilie but most of all we judge Emilie for the way in which she snared Erich, a man who was so much more intelligent than her.

The book is essentially about the relationship between Gustav and Anton, but Tremain's mastery of her plot is demonstrated by the fact that the relationship doesn't dominate. It bubbles quietly like a stream in the background for much of the plot with everything else that happens contributing to the direction it takes. Reading the story, it seems simple, but the construction of the plot is exemplary - an effect which could only be achieved by an author writing at the height of her powers.

As well as reading the book I listened to an audio download (which I bought myself) narrated by Mark Meadows. It was impressive with a strong range of voices. Male narrators rarely master the female voice quite this well and I was also delighted by the care that had been put into pronunciation. I've not encountered Mark Meadows' work before but he's certainly someone whom I'll actively search out in future.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

If this book appeals why not have a look at a couple of other books which have been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2016: This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry? You might also enjoy Whispers Through A Megaphone by Rachel Elliott.

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