Juliet Rieden discovers a haunting tale of love, friendship and a mother’s cruelty set against the backdrop of World War II.
THE GUSTAV SONATA
The power of a Rose Tremain novel is in her haunting characterisation and vivid descriptions, and this new tale, set in neutral Switzerland before and after World War II, is a gem. It’s an unforgettable story of a boy’s undying love for his mother, of her blaming him for past losses and of stoicism begetting years of cruelty.
The narrative is divided into three sections, which make up Gustav’s sonata, each depicting different periods in the protagonist’s life, spanning to the 1990s.
Five-year-old Gustav Perle lives in a tiny apartment in Matzlingen, Switzerland, with his worn-out widowed mother, Emilie, who works at a cheese factory. “Be like Switzerland. Stay separate and strong,” she tells the son she holds at cigarette length. It is 1947 and war did not trespass here, although Gustav’s police chief father died a hero helping Jews, she also tells the boy who never cries. His one toy – a tin train – has painted passengers, who are his only friends. Yet Gustav wants nothing to change – the smell of Emmental cheese in ‘Mutti’s’ hair, her stockings drying over the bath – although he is afraid of her late-night tears and the aniseed on her breath from the glass of yellow liquid.
With money tight, the tender dreamer helps his mother at a second job, cleaning the church, kneeling to hook ‘treasures’ dropped by the congregation – a hairpin, a plum-coloured lipstick in a gold case – gifts his mother violently rebuffs.
When a crying Jewish boy joins his class, a friendship blossoms over the nature table. Anton Zwiebel is a budding concert pianist from a giddily exciting home, but finds a new ice-skating partner – Rudi, who can do a double toe-loop – and Gustav’s laughterfilled new world is crushed. Yet passion and patience can still orchestrate the right kind of life, as Rose Tremain’s testament to never questioning the one you love crescendos over more than half a century. Powerful and enchanting.