Rose Tremain is one of my favourite authors. Her work is always thought provoking and she writes with fidelity to her characters. This novel has an air of sadness hanging over it as we trace the life of Gustav who grows up during the time of the Second World War but in neutral Switzerland where the war should not affect him. The fact that his late father was a policeman who died when Gustav was still a child shows that neutrality does not mean free from harm.
To his mother, Gustav’s father was a hero and this is how his story is told but there is a darker secret that Gustav unravels later in life; a story of moral courage in times of difficulty. His father helped Jewish refugees enter the country when the government had closed the door. This act had implications for his livelihood and possibly his liberty but it is the mother and son who suffer.
When Gustav makes friends with the Jewish boy, Anton, who has ambitions to be a concert pianist, he enters a world with a mother and father who dote on their son. That their family life is so different from his own leads to reflection on fate and fairness. The friendship endures even though their lives take different paths. While Gustav makes friends, his mother cannot build bridges with a Jewish family when Jewish people were significant in the fate of her husband.
The novel is about settling for things in life. Gustav grows into adulthood, reasonably successful in his chosen career yet with a gap. His friendship with Anton endures despite the latter’s departure for bigger cities and it is only towards the end that the gap for Gustav is filled in a way that is unexpected but completely appropriate.
There is a cast of characters around Gustav who represent the various reactions to life’s vicissitudes. ‘The Gustav Sonata’ is ultimately a sweet novel if that word can be used without it seeming to dampen the praise. Let me say that, at the end, I was so pleased the way it turned out for Gustav.