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.

Review

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.

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Do you have a favourite Rose Tremain novel?

The Colour by Rose Tremain

The Colour

It’s been a long time since I have read a Rose Tremain book; I think Music and Silence was the last one I read, I remember that she is a captivating storyteller and creates interesting characters, as she has done here with The Colour.

I was intrigued to read it too, because it is set in New Zealand (where I am from originally), a location rare to find in literature outside homegrown, Rose Tremain being a British author.

Similarly to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (reviewed here), The Colour is set in the South Island during the gold rush period. TLuminarieshough in contrast to that epic tome that won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, Rose Tremain’s novel features only one man seduced by the gold or and gives us an insight into two women, Harriet his wife and Lilian his mothers, their hopes, achievements and personal struggles in trying to make a life in this untamed country.

Joseph and Harriet Blackstone depart England as newlyweds, arriving in Christchurch, from where they buy land in isolated countryside near a river, signifying a new beginning for them all including Joseph’s mother Lilian, although she quickly begins to make plans in her head about how she might leave her son’s newly constructed Cob House, to return to the more civilised town. 

Harriet had felt stifled in England and was almost resigned to her state as a spinster governess, until Joseph’s surprise engagement and a chance for her to start anew, to create a new life for them in this foreign land, which bore little of the attitudes and social stratification of home.

“Harriet had asked her new husband to take her with him. She clung to him and pleaded – she who never whined or complained, who carried herself so well. But she was a woman who longed for the unfamiliar and the strange. As a child, she’d seen it waiting for her, in dreams or in the colossal darkness of the sky: some wild world which lay outside the realm of everything she knew.”

Joseph and Lilian were also fleeing something, although their memories and associations were a little more shameful and sinister, secrets they keep from others, that continue to haunt them on the other side of the world, distance found insufficient to wipe their conscience clean of the past.

110611_1523_TheForestfo1.jpgThey know it will be a tough existence and they will need to learn from mistakes, as all pioneers do, but they find the challenges of this harsh Canterbury landscape almost soul destroying and Joseph is quickly lured away by the glitter and promise of gold dust he finds in his river and soon sets off to join the other men, also seduced by their lust for “the colour”, in new goldfields over the Southern Alps, leaving the two women to fend for themselves.

‘I must go,’ he said.  ‘I must go before all the gold is gone.’

‘And if there isn’t gold?’

‘Men are not risking their lives for nothing, Harriet.’

‘Men are risking their lives in the hope of something. That is all.”

‘I have dreams about the Grey River. I shall come back with enough…enough gold to transform our world.’

‘What have we been doing for all these months,’ she said, but endeavouring to “transform our world”?’

Harriet befriends a family that is succeeding in making a living as they hope to, a horse ride away at Orchard House, although they too have their share of difficulty with their son Edwin and his longing for the Maori nanny they’d let go after an accident. Edwin has a strong spiritual connection with Pare, something his parents don’t understand and are afraid of, as they believe her enchantment over him is making him I’ll.

Overall, it is an enjoyable, entertaining and quietly gripping read with a well-rounded character whose development and journey captivates the reader.

Its only weakness for me, was the subplot featuring Pare, the Maori nanny, her superstitions and behaviours seemed odd to me, somewhat fantastical, bordering on magical realism, a little patronising in terms of my understanding and experience of the legends, culture and tradition I grew up with, though perhaps reminiscent of the colonial attitude of that era and beyond.

A Quiet Obsession

Rain in AixIt’s Saturday in Provence and my elderly neighbour in the apartment downstairs is leaning over her balcony telling me she is depressed and waving her hand skywards. It is spring and it has been raining for a couple of days every week consistently since the end of February.

With a smile I can’t suppress, I tell her it feels like home to me, the home I knew as a child anyway, that country down under where it rains every week but where there is sun every week too, and everything looks clean and green and grows constantly. But our residents in Aix-en-Provence aren’t used to it and the grey skies reflect their mood.

Aix sous la pluie by the artist Barbarion

Aix sous la pluie by the artist Barbarion

But not me.

Today is the English Book Sale, a rare event that I have missed on the last two occasions and I know I don’t need any more books, but I have to go just to see what is on offer and to hang about in the presence of other souls quietly obsessed with books.  You know, that old-fashioned kind, hardcover, softcover, some with post it notes and book marks, one with an attractive business card inside, I left that mystery for the next person to find. And the rain is not keeping people away here; I find the last space left in the car park and join the growing crowd of ex-pats and Anglophones scouting for book treasure.

One of the first books I find is a Virginia Woolf biography by Quentin Bell, and so soon after reading Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing, and remembering Valerie’s comment about regretting having released all her Bloomsbury books to a sale, I rescue this volume from its fate and bring it home in readiness for its mate, the diary I will be picking up from Persephone Books on my next London visit.

The next book I purchase for my Dad, whom I will be seeing in exactly one month, in Istanbul. My father is a retired farmer who had a love of horses all his life, they were the main mode of transport around the farm and at the weekends, we would pile into his converted furniture removals truck, horses in the back, to watch him play an unsophisticated, remote countryside, farming people’s style polo. He will enjoy this true story of an equine beauty by Laura Hillenbrand I am sure.

My Booksale Haul

My Booksale Haul

I am detecting a bit of a theme here, I buy this Rose Tremain novel The Colour, because it is set in New Zealand and it has been recommended numerous times and though I have picked it up and even taken it from the library once, I have never read it – and there is something about the cover on this version that makes me want to own it.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go I pick up without hesitation, I loved his recent collection of short stories and this one has slipped by unread thus far.

I see a fellow book loving friend who thrusts Lisa Scottoline’s book Look Again into my hands and tells me she stayed up all night last night reading it. It’s disturbing but unputdownable she says. Ok, always room on the shelf for a book that grips one from the first page and perfect holiday reading material, though perhaps not the upcoming Turkish holiday, I don’t want to read about lost children before taking mine to a large unknown city.

The cute little Julie Otsuka novel When the Emperor was Divine, I can’t resist. I want to read The Buddha in the Attic, but this is the book that presents itself first, it’s more of a novella and the seductive testimonial on the front cover is enough to tempt me, one who rarely buys into contrived book cover descriptions, but mesmerising, lyric gifts, narrative poise, a heat-seeking eye for detail, there are enough enticing adjectives in that one blurb for me to appreciate, living in an era of twitter fiction, so I take it.

A Political Tragedy in Six Acts

A Political Tragedy in Six Acts

And the pièce de résistance, a hardback, first edition of John Keane’s biography of Václav Havel A Political Tragedy in Six Acts. I don’t know a lot about Havel, he was a renowned playwright turned President of the Czech Republic and a daring dissident in his youth, yet the little I do know of him, makes we want to know a lot more. He died in Dec 2011 but I believe that there are lessons to be learned from the life he lived.

And so, with my arms straining under the load of seven books, I look up to the balcony of my neighbour and tell her to do what I would do if I felt that way about the day, find a good book and escape into it for the afternoon, and don’t worry, the forecast is for sun tomorrow.

At last she smiles, ‘Yes, that I can do’, she says and ‘Bon Livre’ as I disappear inside with my stash of books, a hot roasted chicken, 2 fresh baguettes and 3 chocolate éclairs. Life is good!