The protagonist of Rose Tremain’s 13th novel is a Swiss boy, Gustav, whose father died before he ever got to know him, and whose emotionally distant and impecunious mother, Emilie, instils in him the importance of self-mastery: “You have to be like Switzerland… You have to hold yourself together, be courageous, stay separate and strong.” So powerful is his mother’s edict that even when five-year-old Gustav is left at kindergarten “He never cried. He could often feel a cry coming up from his heart, but he always forced it down.”
All that five-year-old Gustav knows about his father, Erich, when the novel opens in 1947 is that “the Jews are the people your father died trying to save”. When Gustav befriends a new boy in his class, Anton Zwiebel, and his affluent Jewish family, the friendship incites Emilie’s social inadequacy and antisemitism. Tremain portrays with precision Emilie’s sense of threat that she is losing her son to the Zwiebels a fear she is unable to unravel meaningfully for herself, let alone convey truthfully to her son, in scenes that bleed with emotional repression.
Gustav and Anton are opposites, both socially and temperamentally: Anton is tempestuous, financially secure and a talented pianist, whereas Gustav is sensible, poor and a sub-par student. And yet Tremain evokes a subtle, unconscious transaction in the early stages of the boys’ friendship. Gustav provides something both stabilising and liberating for Anton: the reader doesn’t discover what it is until the novel’s deeply satisfying conclusion.
The narrative jumps back and forth – rewinding 12 years to reveal the truth about Emilie and Erich’s marriage, leaping forward to 1992 to rediscover Gustav and Anton as adults. Tremain’s delicate investigation of envy, ambition and loneliness are all the more powerful for her restrained command of language: “And he understood, now more than ever in his life, there was nothing and no one to cushion him from the hardness of the earth.”
The Gustav Sonata is a powerful, profound and unexpected love story about the enduring damage of unrequited love. It is a masterful, meditative novel in which Tremain plays with themes and motifs as a composer plays with musical refrains. It is, ultimately, a story about the impact of history on individual lives, on the interconnectedness of strangers, and the narratives people tell themselves and one another by way of self-denial, self-protection and survival.
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