Read­ing room

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - BY ROSE TREMAIN, RAN­DOM HOUSE.

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.

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