The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain has been on my book radar for a while now, with so many of the lovely bookish people online that I admire giving glowing reviews. I too was mesmerised by this incredibly beautiful, often melancholic, sometimes hopeful story of the relationship between two young boys (and later, middle-aged men) set against the backdrop of post-World War II Switzerland.
The book is split into three parts, the first part being the story of little Gustav, who lives alone with his mother, his father having died in unknown circumstances during the war. The portrayal of his childhood is so well written and rather heart wrenching at times – Tremain really invites the reader into the thoughts and emotions of this lonely, imaginative child, who would give anything for his mother to show him love. And then Gustav meets Anton at Kindergarten and his world is transformed in so many ways. The exhilaration of this first experience of love, the joy of connecting with the world around him, the highs and lows of seeking refuge in another human being; all these things are beautifully explored. Later on, the first kiss under the guise of imaginative play as teenagers is so tender, so genuinely portrayed. There is a sense of healing, of boundaries being removed for that split second in time, which made me shed a tear or two.
The second part focuses on the backstory of Gustav’s parents, Emilie and Erich and here lies the darker heart of the story. Emilie is a troubled, complex character, not able to love, becoming more and more disconnected during her marriage. I was torn between feeling great empathy with her as I learned more of her bleak story and the motivation behind her actions, and a feeling of frustration that she just couldn’t or wouldn’t turn things around for the sake of her child. Erich is portrayed as the polar opposite, a man led by both passion and compassion- both of which lead to his downfall. He too fails Gustav. The decline of this marriage of polar opposites is tragic, showing both the incredible anger, sadness and bitterness as these two souls are unable to find each other. Thrown into the mix, is the role Switzerland played in terms of accepting and then rejecting Jewish refugees during the Nazi period. Erich, in his role as policeman, allows Jews to enter Switzerland past the cut-off date. This thread is understated but at the same time very powerful and it certainly encouraged me to research. I think that certainly in the British history books I have come across, the roles of the ‘neutral’ countries are often only mentioned in passing. Yet how countries such as Switzerland and Sweden responded to Jews, had a huge impact on chances of survival. Immigration, with its associated prejudice and fear, is a timeless problem that we humans just don’t seem to be able to handle.
Part three then follows Gustav and Anton in their middle-aged years and concludes with scenario that creates both hope and doubt in equal measures for me. Personally speaking, I really connected with Gustav as he continues to seek refuge and warmth in his adult life. He is certainly one of the most genuine, lovely characters I have come across in some time. Anton however- well I’m not so sure. Is he a self-absorbed, hurtful man with little consideration of the impact he has on those who love him, or does he have mental health issues of his own that prevent him from forming meaningful relationships and finding what truly matters in life? I just don’t know. I’d love to know what you think.