TREMAIN’S SONATA IS MORE ROCK AND ROLL THAN WALTZ, BUT WORTH THE DROPPED NOTES

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gustav-sonata-cvrOn 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.

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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.

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Rose Tremain

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.

THE COLD WON’T BOTHER YOU AGAIN AFTER READING HOWARTH’S TALE OF WARTIME ENDURANCE

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We Die Alone CvrImagine you’re living on the outskirts of a small rural village or in an isolated farmstead – in Nazi occupied Norway, north of the Artic circle.  On a bitterly cold, dark, mid-winter evening there’s a knock on your door. You open it to find a wounded and disheveled stranger, close to exhaustion. He’s on the run from the Nazis. He needs you to feed and shelter him. You know that if you do, you will be tortured and killed if found out. Not only you, also your children – who are sleeping upstairs – could also be killed to make an example of “collaborators” or transported to a ‘labour’ camp.

What would you do?

This is the recurring real-life dilemma faced by housewives, fishermen and villagers when Jan Baalsrud lands on their doorstep in this month’s book, it’s We Die Alone by David Howarth.

Jan Baalsrud is not a fictional character. He was a Norwegian commando sent from England as part of an under-cover sabotage mission to organize and supply the Norwegian resistance during World War II.   The mission goes horribly wrong when, having sailed from Scotland to a remote bay north of Tromso, the leader of the mission reveals their identity to a local store owner who they have been told is a trusted contact. Too late they realize that their contact has died a year earlier and the new owner of the store, who has the same name, is terrified.  The message on a poster in his own shop: “Contact with the enemy is punished by death” is no idle threat. He calls a friend in the Department of Justice. Next morning a German gunboat sails into the bay.

The ensuing battle results in 11 of the 12-man commando unit being killed or captured (and subsequently executed).  Only Jan – wounded and minus a boot – escapes into the adjoining snow-covered hills.

So begins Jan’s epic 68-day escape journey across artic Norway to eventual safety in neutral Sweden.  Actually, epic doesn’t even begin to describe it. Add heroic, superhuman and phenomenal and we get a little closer – but it is difficult to find the superlatives to truly do justice to what Jan Baalstrud endured over these 68-days.

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The Route of Jan’s Epic Journey

 

Evading capture was only one of his many challenges. The harsh conditions of the Artic mountains presented an even more formidable threat.  Caught in an avalanche, he survives a 300ft fall that leaves him concussed, hallucinating and snow-blind.  He suffers severe frost-bite and starvation. Unable to walk because of a gangrenous leg, he endures days on a mountain lying in a hole in the ice under a boulder – his “snow grave”.  His physical perseverance is phenomenal, but even more impressive is his mental resolve and determination – superhuman is what comes to mind.  What other word adequately describes the level of resolve required to methodically amputate his own toes to rid himself of gangerene while lying, wet and cold, under a rock? Or to doggedly maintain a daily routine of basic survival tasks when convinced that he has been abandoned?

Jan’s courage and bravery are without any doubt exceptional and deserving of fulsome admiration, even adulation. But it is those who help him – the housewives, fishermen and

Jan Baalsrud

Jan Baalsrud

villagers mentioned above, the ordinary Norwegians on whose doorstep Jan appears – who truly deserve the accolade of ‘heroic’.  With the sole exception of the aforementioned shop owner, every single person who Jan seeks help from gives it willingly. They hide him, provide him with food from their meagre war rations, haul him in a stretcher up a mountain, drag him in a sled across a treacherous plateau – all the while putting themselves in mortal danger of being caught and executed and endangering their families. And when Jan reaches safety in Sweden, they remain with this danger still hanging over them like a sword of Damacles. For two more years they continue to live with the constant threat that an inadvertent word or an accidental comment might alert the Germans to their ‘treason’. Jan’s courage and bravery was motivated by a powerful desire to survive. The bravery of the men and women who ensured his survival was selfless. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Without doubt they are the real heroes of this amazing story.

 

And the most amazing thing? It’s NOT fiction – it all actually happened. These were real people who acted with astonishing bravery and selflessness to help a stranger who could not have survived without their help.  In this instance, truth is not only stranger than fiction but also much, much more wonderful.

David Howarth

David Howarth

The author, David Howarth, had a direct connection with the story. He was one of the commanding officers of the secret naval base in the Shetland Islands from which the boat that brought Jan and his ill-fated comrades to Norway embarked. After the war he re-traced Jan’s escape route with him and interviewed the people who helped him. This first-hand knowledge is evident throughout – and adds to the readers sense of witnessing inspiring real-life events.

 

Written in 1955, this was the third of 18 books on military history written by the English author, the others included Sledge Patrol (1951), Shetland Bus (1951), Thieves Hole (1954), Dawn of D-Day (1959), Sovereign of The Seas (1974), The Dreadnoughts (1979) and Nelson: The Immortal Memory (1988). We Die Alone was made into a movie “Ni Liv” (Nine Lives) in 1957 and inspired a 5-part Norweigan TV series in 2012.

The book retains a freshness and immediacy largely due to Howarth’s fast-paced, journalistic writing style. There are a few ‘time-warp’ issues that reflect attitudes that would not be tolerated today but were almost universally accepted at the time – e.g. some comments on the Lapps generate a ‘gulp’ in today’s reader – but these do not detract from the inspiring humanity of the story.

Read this book. It’ll restore your faith in human nature. And as we face into months of ear-bashing by Donald Trump’s hate-filled invective we need to be reminded that we have the capacity for empathetic heroism.

BELFOURE’S WARTIME ESCAPADE WILL HAVE YOU SEEKING A HIDEAWAY TO FINISH THIS TAUT PAGE TURNER

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The Paris Archtct CvrIt may be one of most romantic cities in the world, but with what has been visited upon the French capital in the past twelve months, you’d think I’d be turned off going there. On the contrary, this makes me more determined than ever to fan the flames of love in its various arrondissements, walking hand in hand along the banks of the Seine or sittiing outside it’s cafe’s and boulangeries drinking coffee and nibbling fresh flaky croissants while admiring the architecture. Thus bringing us on to this month’s book – it’s The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure.

As Lucien Bernard the Architect of the title, rounds a corner of a street in Paris he almost bumps into a man running in the opposite direction. In the split second that it takes for the man to pass, Lucien notices that he is wearing the same cologne as himself. He hears a gun shot, turning he sees the man is lying dead on the pavement behind him, blood pouring from his head. He is a Jew.

This opening scene from “The Paris Architect” reflects the tone of the book.  Set in 1940’s Nazi-occupied Paris, the book explores the intersection of normal, everyday life with the terror of living-on-the-edge, where being in the wrong place at the wrong time could mean death, torture or deportation to a prison camp.

The book’s central character, Lucien, is a handsome young architect battling with the deprivations of occupied Paris – little work, scarcity of food, rationing. Self-centered and egotistical, as the story begins Lucien is frustrated that the war has deprived him of the opportunity to display his modernist architectural talents and, in the process, becoming rich and renowned, achieving the social status and acclaim that he, by his own lights, truly deserves.

On the morning of the shooting, Lucien is heading for a fateful meeting with a rich industrialist, Auguste Manet. He is expecting a commission to design an armaments factory for the German military. Manet’s proposition is, however, entirely different. He wants Lucien to incorporate a secret hiding place in an apartment that is to be used to accommodate a Jewish friend until he can be moved to safety.  Lucien’s horror at being asked to do such a dangerous task is only slightly assuaged by the very large sum of money that Manet offers. Even the indication that this would lead to the expected factory commission does little to persuade Lucien to take on such a suicidal job. The hook that reels him in is the architectural challenge. He envisages an elegant solution, an ingenious hiding place that no Gestapo search party would find…

So begins Lucien’s transformation. As his fascination for devising architectural solutions

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Inspiration – A Priest Hole

draws him into a life-threatening web of secrecy and intrigue, Lucien’s arrogant self-confidence is challenged by tragedy and by exposure to the self-sacrifice and bravery of others. A very unlikely hero emerges.

 

Lucien is soon leading a double life – surreptitiously visiting apartments to design hiding places while also socialising with German officers to progress his factory proposals. As his life becomes more and more dangerously complicated – he becomes friends with a Wehrmacht officer, the Paris Resistance targets him as a collaborator, his mistress takes a Gestapo lover, he takes in an orphaned Jewish boy  – the tension and terror heightens.

And it isn’t only Lucien’s life that generates nail-biting tension. Balfoure’s description of the coldly casual brutality of Nazi killing of civilians is truly shocking, bringing home what it must be like to live under a reign of terror.

It also raises uncomfortable questions for the reader. What would we do if we were faced with a similar situation? Would we risk our life and those of our family to protect others from atrocity? Or would we adopt Lucien’s wife approach that “in wartime, Christian brotherhood takes a back seat to saving one’s own skin.”

Balfoure’s description of the sadism of the Gestapo and the grotesque consequences for those found helping Jews – and even those who are only living in the same apartment block – brings into sharp focus why it was that ordinary people in Germany and occupied Europe looked the other way and ‘allowed’ unconscionable atrocities to be carried out all around them. I, unfortunately, have to admit that I would do the same.

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Charles Belfoure

An architect by profession, this is Balfoure’s first book of two works of fiction, published in 2013, the other is House of Thieves published last year (www.charlesbelfoure.com). The idea for Lucien’s ‘hook’ is based on the actual incorporation of secret hiding places for persecuted priests in houses of Catholic sympathizers during the reign of Elizabeth 1st.    Balfoure’s own love of architectural problem-solving is evident throughout. Although spatially challenged, even I found his descriptions of the design of hiding places compellingly fascinating, making Lucien’s risk taking and subsequent transformation wholly believable.

Written with a true story-teller’s flair, the narrative unfolds at a fast, page-turning pace – until close to the end, which is disappointingly clichéd (written with a film deal in mind?).  Despite this one reservation, it’s a really good thought-provoking read.

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We’d like to take this opportunity to wish all our readers and followers on the various social media a very happy New Year. Thanks for stopping by and for spreading the word. We hope you enjoy the book reviews that we’ve have left  beyond The Library Door  and will continue to leave over 2016. Adrian