Review: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.

This novel follows Gustav and Anton from their childhood friendship into their adult lives, charting the lives of their families along the way. A sonata is traditionally a piece of music played by a solo instrument, two at the most. As The Gustav Sonata begins, it feels as if it will focus solely on the eponymous character, perhaps with the odd accompaniment from Anton as their friendship develops. Instead, Rose Tremain adds in other elements; an underlying beat of context, the thrum of violence. Characters seemingly incidental become crucial to the novel, whilst others fade away into background noise.

Set in post-war Switzerland, Tremain’s story traces various scars that appear in the wake of the Second World War and the Holocaust. They’re not big, dramatic traumas, but micro ones that extend into the families and their communities. It’s a theme that is not immediately clear until later in the novel when the similar experiences of characters are slowly revealed. It deepens the work, becoming much more about the need for relationships to survive such horrific times and the danger of letting those connections fracture.

Gustav and Anton’s families have their own post-war micro-traumas to deal with and these affect the development of their friendship. Gustav’s foreboding mother casts a long shadow and her prejudices and particular parenting methods could easily make her the villain of the piece. But Tremain chooses instead to tell her story too, delving back into her relationship with Gustav’s father to explore how it all changed. 

Though it touches on many classic story elements such as a love story or a coming-of-age tale, Tremain’s skill is in never letting the narrative fall into specifically generic moments. As a result, The Gustav Sonata unfolds as an elegant tale of the way in which people can be marked by seemingly distant events in unexpected ways.