On the day that I finished reading this month’s second book, back at the start of February, it’s ironic that Rolf Harris was cleared of three further historical sex abuse charges. One of his greatest hits was a firm favorite at Christmas and I’ve found myself humming regularly, especially while reading this book. Since his conviction it and all his other work, both artistically and musically has been scrubbed from playlists and removed from public view, which is a shame.
I’m referring of course to Two Little Boys. A song which tells the story of two friends who grow up then get separated in battle only to have one ride out of the smoke and rescue his mate with the chorus line “Did you think I would leave you dying, when there’s room on my horse for two….” and this is the main theme of this book, The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain published by Vintage publishing www.Penguin.c.uk/Vintage in January this year.
Gustav Perle grows up in the sheltered existence of neutral Switzerland just after the second world war. Raised by his widowed mother Emilie, they live a hand to mouth existence as she works two jobs, at the Cheese factory and cleaning the local church early on Saturdays, doing her level best to try and keep their heads above water and provide some sort of respectable normality to his childhood, although her own depression and borderline alcoholism is a hindrance. One day Gustav’s solitary existence is shattered when a new boy Anton Zweibel (which translates as onion) arrives at his school. They hit it off instantly and from there on a lifelong friendship begins which goes deeper than just friends and the boys discover different things about each other’s past.
The book deals with a lot of topics which are current even today, such as immigration, the Humanitarian Crisis, as well as what is right or wrong and it asks the question, what would we do if in a certain situation. Through Gustav’s journey of discovery, we uncover the truth about what happened to his father during the war and why his mother will not talk about it. What unfolds via a revelation is his old man’s infidelity, his work related stress, but also the beautiful and passionate courtship of his parents, before Gustav’s birth and early life.
The main part of the book centres on the relationship between the two boys . There is a ‘will they won’t they ‘unrequited gay scenario. While also showing how two friends lives can change over time due to their different aims or more importantly upbringing.
Gustav’s life is pure struggle to survive until he meets Anton. Anton is the son of a Jewish banker who has everything he needs and is being groomed to be a concert pianist, only for his nerves to get in the way. What comes across in the book is that Gustav is a virtual doormat to all of humanity and is all but used by everyone he meets, even Anton, who comes across as a spineless self-centred human being is used to having things done for him and who can’t really deal with any harsh challenges (bit like the youth of today in the blogger’s opinion). Thus he needs Gustav to be his emotional crutch, who must break various bits of bad news to Anton’s parents’, employers etc, etc… Gustav it appears, is the son the Zweibel’s never had and wished they did instead of Anton. Through his friendship he is exposed to the good things in life, things his poor washed up mother can’t provide. Expensive holidays in Geneva and Davos and skating at the local ice rink.
This English Author Rose Tremain’s www.rosetremain.co.uk thirteenth novel, the others include The Sadler’s Birthday(1976), The Cupboard(1981), Restoration(1989), which was shortlisted for The Booker and made into a film with a stellar cast, including Robert Downey Jnr., Meg Ryan, Hugh Grant, Sam Neil and David Thewlis. The Road Home(2008) was the Whitbread Novel of the year and Trespass(2010) was a Richard & Judy Book Club pick. She has written five collections of short stories and a children’s book called Journey To The Volcano(1985). Rose was made a CBE in 2007 and currently lives in Norfolk with her partner the biographer Richard Holmes.
This isn’t the first time she has used immigration and sexual discovery as a subject for her books, Her 1992 book Sacred Country tells the story a young English girl who is gender challenged. While The Road Home, follows the exploits of a young Eastern European man as he leaves his homeland to start a new life in London.
The general reaction to this book at the book group, including myself was that the book was a nice read. But could have been a bit longer, and was a victim of over editing, which is usually lacking in other similar novels. Thus, the story in the Gustav Sonata is not given more time to develop, so what you get is short jumpy bits which feels a bit like a hashed-up time travelling piece.
The ending also feels a bit twee and just thrown in to finish a book the author had lost interest in or was under pressure to finish. The topics covered in the book allowed for a frank and in-depth discussion on current problems facing Europe and the world, what with immigration through Europe and Trump’s botched travel ban. So, take yourself off and download or pick up a copy of this book.