“The Gustav Sonata” by Rose Tremain – review

I’m a frustratingly slow reader, so it’s incredibly rare for me to race through a book in a single day, but that’s exactly what I did with “The Gustav Sonata”.  It’s beautiful, compassionate and has a quiet sadness about it, a sense of stillness punctuated by a few momentous events, and with characters who have become almost embalmed in their regrets, resentments and disappointments.  This is a novel about how easily life can pass you by and how frighteningly easy it is to let love and happiness slip through your fingers.

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The book is divided into three parts (like a sonata according to the author’s afterword, a fact that passed me by I must confess!)  The first starts in 1947 in the Swiss town of Matzlingen when Gustav, the main character, is just five years old.  He lives in a meagre, cramped apartment with his mother Emilie, whom he adores in spite of the fact that she is consistently cold and unaffectionate towards him.  His father Erich is dead and although Gustav doesn’t remember him he does know his father was a hero who performed selfless and courageous deeds during the grim years of the Second World War.  At least that’s what his mother tells him, though she remains vague and somewhat cryptic in her explanations.  Little Gustav’s existence is a lonely one until a new boy arrives at the kindergarten.  Anton is a sensitive soul given to bursts of tears, and an outsider like Gustav.  The sad pair gravitates towards each other and a touching friendship develops, but Gustav’s mother remains strangely disapproving.  Is it simply that the wealth and social standing of Anton’s affluent family shames or embarrasses her?  Or could it be that their Jewish background stirs up painful memories from the veiled years leading up to Erich’s death?  Whatever the reason, Emilie’s discomfort cannot stop the friendship from flourishing; yet as they grow older it becomes clear that one thing certainly isn’t flourishing, and that’s Anton himself.  He is an incredibly gifted pianist, close to being a child prodigy, and his ambitious parents have high hopes for a career as a concert performer.  The problem is, as soon as he gets in front of an audience nerves overtake him and he’s never able to play anywhere near his full potential.  Part one of the novel draws to a close with Gustav going on holiday with Anton’s family following a disastrous piano competition that reduced the poor boy to a state of mental and physical anguish.  They’re only ten years old at this point, but both are already keenly aware just how much they need each other.

Part two jumps back in time to the late 1930s, and now some of the questions that bubbled up during part one begin to be answered.  Tempting though it is, I’m not going to talk about any of the secrets that are uncovered from this moment onwards as I wouldn’t want to rob you of the thrill of enjoying the revelations for yourself.  A novel that started off as intriguing blossoms into something immensely satisfying as we gradually come to understand the characters’ life journeys and have some sympathy with why they’ve become who they are.  As I hinted at the beginning of the review, happiness proves elusive and futures that once took root in the imagination as something bright and hopeful are crushed under the brutal foot of reality.  That’s not to say I came to like all the characters: Emilie in particular I never warmed to, but it didn’t matter.  The most important thing I think was for me as a reader to understand and empathise even if the affection wasn’t there.

The third section takes a drastic leap forwards to the 1990s when Gustav and Anton are middle-aged men still living in Matzlingen.  At first I felt slightly uncomfortable with such an enormous jump in time, a bit cheated perhaps that so much of the main characters’ lives had gone by without explanation of any kind.  However as I read on I found I got over this feeling fairly quickly.  Again I don’t want to give any more elements of the story away, but the sense of sadness in this final part is extremely profound.  In part one we saw the loneliness of a little boy through his own eyes, which was incredibly moving, but now we experience something almost worse: the loneliness of an aging man who’s beginning to realise that so much of his life has been spent in emotional isolation, with no hope of change on the horizon.  I’m really pleased that Rose Tremain chose to end the story in the way she did.  I’d wondered off and on during the book whether things were eventually going to go in the direction I anticipated, and they did, but far from feeling a bit aggrieved that I’d second guessed the author, I felt that Gustav’s life shouldn’t and couldn’t have culminated any other way.

If you’re already a fan of Rose Tremain then you won’t be disappointed by this.  It’s not quite the immersive experience of something like “Music and Silence” (which is still my favourite I think) but it’s gripping and heartwarmingly sad if you can have such a thing!  And as I said at the start, once you’ve picked it up there’s no putting it down again, and that’s the ultimate compliment you can pay to any book.

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