The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

My husband had one word for this book: bleak.

I suppose if you crave happy endings and conflict resolution, this might not be the book for you.

I found this a really interesting perspective of World War 2 that I hadn’t thought of before: the ever neutral Switzerland. I appreciated this point of view, and came to see that war was just a (excuse me) bitch to everyone all over the world, no matter how involved or uninvolved they were. Even in Switzerland, trying to stay out of it, people were left destitute and in danger. (Okay, I don’t know much about history, so don’t criticise my ignorance too much.)

Our main character is Gustav, and the book opens to his life as a young boy living with his single mother in a tiny flat without even a table – only a shelf that they use instead. From the beginning it is evident that Gustav is such a  beautiful character. He is kind, patient and just wants to be loved. He takes care of people, and seems unaware of how unfair things are for him. His mother treats him coldly, and even his young friend Anton uses him as a shield against the world, helping him cope with his anxieties and failures.

Interestingly, from here, Tremain jumps back to a few decades before when Gustav’s parents first met. This back-track fills in some gaps for us. We see how it was in the beginning of their marriage, and come to see that Gustav’s mother (Emilie) isn’t bitter and cold because of her memories of a happy marriage. It was far from that, and much more complicated.

Emilie is an interesting character. We despise and we sympathise with her, but even when her story is explained, it turns out that she has a bleak and unrealistic view of the world. She wants more than she can have. She works hard to survive, but fails to find enjoyment in the simplest things, like spending time with her son.

Towards the end of The Gustav Sonata, we see Gustav’s life as a man in his fifties-sixties. He has worked hard, saved and bought a hotel. Unfortunately he was unable to repair his relationship with his mother before she died, and we see that Anton is still using Gustav more than he should.

I guess it was a bit of a bleak book. There are some strange bits in there that I can’t really explain. Is it worth a read? … Yeah. Sure. Or if you’re like me, and enjoy happy stories, maybe give it a miss.



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