The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain is an author whose books I never hesitate to pick up, she is such an engaging storyteller. The last novel I read by her was The Colour, set in New Zealand during the gold rush, an excellent alternative to the lengthier The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.


Set in Switzerland, The Gustav Sonata opens in 1947 in the village of Matzlingen when Gustav is five years old, and like a sonata is structured in three parts.

Gustav lives in a small apartment with his mother Emilie who works at the local Emmental cheese factory, her circumstances diminished since the death of her husband. Frustrated by motherhood and resentful, Emilie finds little solace in the presence of her son, she  barely extends basic care towards him. Each morning they walk to kindergarten.

He never cried. He could often feel a cry trying to come up from his heart, but he always forced it down. Because this was how Emilie had told him to behave in the world. He had to master himself. The world was alive with wrongdoing, she said, but Gustav had to emulate his father who, when wronged, had behaved like an honourable  man; he had mastered himself. In this way Gustav would be prepared for the uncertainties to come. Because even in Switzerland where the war hadn’t trespassed, nobody yet knew how the future would unfold.

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Gustav befriends an anxious little boy named Anton and inspires confidence in him. Emilie invites him to play, but then seems disturbed by his name, doesn’t want him around. Gustav visits Anton and discovers his new friend is a gifted piano player.

‘I’m going to play for Gustav’ said Anton. ‘I’m going to play The Linden Tree.’

‘If you listen carefully and close your eyes,’ said Anton, ‘you can hear the leaves of the tree rustling in the notes.’

In Part Two the story moves back to 1937 and we meet Emilie again as a young girl, attending a festival with a friend, oblivious to the troubled undercurrent gripping the continent.

Europe is moving, slowly, almost blindly, like a sleepwalker, towards catastrophe. But in the villages of Mittelland, the calendar of feast days and festivals unrolls through a fine and untroubled summer.

In the excitement of the day, the girls meet off-duty Assistant Police Chief Erich Perle, just as he is crowned Schwinger Champion at the festival, they’re both smitten, he tells them his work isn’t onerous, having no idea yet of the trouble that is headed his way.

‘What’s “onerous”,’ asks Sofie?

‘Burdensome or difficult. The reason police work isn’t very onerous is because the Swiss enjoy obeying the law. On the whole, unless a law is felt to be unjust, they prefer to obey it. When I joined the force, I was told in one of the lectures that Switzerland is a country where people have mastery over themselves.’

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The story unfolds and by Part Three Gustav is a mature adult and hotel owner. Not much has changed in the cool, indifference shown to him by his mother, but he develops an interest in uncovering the mystery surrounding his father, of which we are now aware more of than he. Thoughts of childhood continue to invoke an inexplicable sadness.

The sadness gathered like a grey twilight around the idea of his own invisibility: the way the boy Gustav had kept on trying to push himself into the light so that his Mutti would see him better. But she had never seen him better. She’d remained half blind to who he was.

It’s a beautifully written simple story unraveling the circumstances that brought these people together and the reverberating impact of decisions they made that changed the course of their lives. It is the story of a friendship that is little understood until it fragments and is temporarily severed, separation allowing the space to reflect on the importance a shared history brings. It’s about making amends.

Rose Tremain’s Islands of Mercy – coming Sept 2020

1865, in the city of Bath, a young woman renowned for her nursing skills is convinced another destiny will one day present itself. When she finds herself torn between a dangerous affair and the promise of a conventional marriage to an apparently respectable doctor, her desires lead her towards a future she never imagined.

On the island of Borneo, an eccentric British ‘rajah’, Sir Ralph Savage, overflowing with philanthropy but compromised by his passions, sees his schemes undermined by his own fragility, by man’s innate greed and the invasive power of the forest.

Jane’s quest for an altered life and Sir Ralph’s endeavours entwine as the story journeys from the confines of an English tearoom to the rainforests of a tropical island via the slums of Dublin and the transgressive fancy-dress boutiques of Paris.

Islands of Mercy is a novel that ignites the senses, a bold exploration of the human urge to seek places of sanctuary in a pitiless world.


Do you have a favourite Rose Tremain novel?

30 thoughts on “The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

  1. I love RT’s work and really enjoyed The Gustav Sonata. I listened to the audiobook which made it even more memorable. And I was delighted yesterday to receive a NetGalley copy of her new book – can’t wait to get stuck in!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It does sound intriguing the new book, I’m amazed at the wide geographic locations she covers in her books, an added bonus, I love the diversity of place! Was it the author herself who read the audio? I imagine it would make a unique memory. I wonder whether listening or reading creates a stronger memory of a book?

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was read by someone called Mark Matthews. He had the perfect voice – slightly flat in tone which totally matched the character of Gustav. I think the potential for memory-making is extremely strong where you have a good narrator who really brings the book to life.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes that’s what I was thinking, being told a story almost seems like it might store in a different memory bank. A couple of people have said that having heard Michelle Obama read her own memoir was like having her there in the room, a voice can have such presence.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Completely agree. It also helps with some books that are difficult to read-read. I could not get on with Wolf Hall but am really enjoying the audiobook.


        • Oh that’s interesting, I’m very wary of that one, after finally abandoning her ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ having read over 400 pages, I just couldn’t keep going. I stared Wolf Hall and put it down, but I didn’t really give it much of a chance.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed this as well, but it wasn’t particularly well received at my book group. I have to say that I didn’t think it was as good as Restoration but I was surprised at the comments that a lot of people made about being bored by this one.


    • That’s interesting, I think it was quite a reflective novel, but I found it quite engaging right from the beginning. The last third felt different and was perhaps weaker than the first two parts, but I loved it.


  3. I have a copy of this waiting to be read. I posted on The American Lover a couple of years ago – a collection of quite good stories. I remember little about The Colour, and found The Road Home ok. I think I’ve only ever seen the film of Restoration. She’s versatile.


    • I was surprised and delighted by The Colour, due to it being historical and set in NZ, but it was good to revisit my thoughts and bring the reading experience back again. I don’t know her short stories at all, I’ll have to check them out.


  4. I remember really enjoying this novel when I read it a couple of years back! I especially loved the first part, when the main characters were children c:


    • Yes, that first section is extremely compelling Fatma, I was completely hooked and liked how it added an element of mystery because we didn’t yet know what had happened to his father. Little Gustav was so beautifully depicted.

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  5. I’ve really liked Restoration and The Road Home, though I wasn’t too sure about the second one before I started it, but it surprised me. Now Gustav Sonata is back on my TBR list.


  6. It’s interesting to see your review of this (along with the comments above). I read this a couple of years ago when a friend chose it for our book group, but it wasn’t particularly for me. I liked the first section covering the boys’ childhood years but ultimately lost faith with the book in the final third which just felt too much of a stretch in terms credibility. We had quite a bit of discussion about it in our group with opinions being split in a couple of different ways. Two or three readers found it very affecting, while others were much more sceptical. I always think it makes for a more interesting discussion when we disagree, so from that perspective it was an appropriate choice!


    • I agree that the third section wasn’t nearly as compelling as the first two sections, which stopped it being a 5 star read for me. I wondered about why that was, whether there was a break in the writing of the book that caused it, or was it the age of the characters, that big jump to their later years? And was it credible? There was something magical about Part One for sure, that invoked greater empathy in the reader that wasn’t sustained in that last section.


  7. Hi Claire 🌺
    Is it possible that I never read Rose Tremain? It seems so after I checked my books.
    I will remedy this soon, her next book has a enticing cover, so Islands of Mercy is on my TBR as soon as it is published.
    Thank you Claire for your always interesting blog and recommendations, so appreciated 🤗💓

    Liked by 1 person

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