In post World War II Switzerland, a lonely boy and his bitter, distant mother live in a tiny flat in a nondescript town. Events in the past throw dark shadows over their lives, but what exactly has happened is a mystery to 10-year-old Gustav. The novel, divided into three parts or ‘sonatas’, takes us back to happier times before the war, to a devastating event that breaks the spell, and to Gustav’s life as an adult.
Tremain touches upon Jewish refugees during the war with a chilling parallel to the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and the challenge of staying neutral when the world burns around you but sadly fails to dig deeper into the issues. In fact, this book had too many loose ends to feel complete, be it Gustav’s relationship with his friend Anton, the jealousy between various characters or the mother’s anti-semitism. I also found some of the sexual relationships hard to believe – were Swiss women in the 1950s really that sexually liberated? At least, I’m willing to bet they didn’t say ‘fuck’ and ‘cool’.
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain is published by Chatto and Windus, 256 pages.