The Gustav Sonata

Written by Rose Tremain
Review by Douglas Kemp

Switzerland in the years just after the end of the Second World War. Gustav Perle is a young boy living a bleak and lonely existence with his widowed, impoverished and rather shallow and selfish mother, Emilie, in the fictional small town of Matzlingen. Gustav’s father was a police officer, and the story of his death during the War, and Gustav’s mother’s subsequent bitterness, emerges during the tale, which is narrated from Gustav’s perspective. He becomes friends with a Jewish boy his age whose family has just moved to the town; Anton Zwiebel’s parents are relatively wealthy, with his father working in the local bank. But they also have their freight of emotional distress. This friendship comes to define Gustav’s life, which as a search for stability, reliability and self-reliance is in some ways a metaphor for the neutrality and independence expressed in his own country – Switzerland.

In the central second part of the story, Rose Tremain takes us back to the years before the War in the late 1930s, when Emilie and her future husband, Erich, have just met. They marry and experience some problems, in addition to Erich suffering from guilt when he decides, in a very un-Swiss way, to break a directive and continue helping refugee Jews from Austria and Germany, rather than sending them back to the border. The outcome of this principled stand turns out to be disastrous for Erich and his family. The final part takes the reader to the early 1990s, when we and Gustav learn more about those days in the 1930s-40s, and we see how events can determine the future lives of adults, to influence them, for good or for ill, for the rest of their existence. This is a moving and engaging novel – beautifully written and a delight to read.