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Novel set in Switzerland (“..pitch perfect and humane”)

5th December 2016

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain, novel set in Switzerland.

This is a book that has layers of many levels and it is up to the reader how many to peel apart, peruse and enjoy.


A sonata is usually made up of three or four movements, and the book itself reflects this construct as it is composed of three parts. At the heart is Gustav whom we meet as a little boy just after World War 2. He is a kind little soul, who takes new boy Anton under his wing on his first day at school and from there a friendship flourishes, although Anton seems to have a fragile nature. Gustav by contrast is encouraged to show a robust demeanour, so that he isn’t ground down by life. Gustav’s mother Emilie suffers depression and therefore he is glad to be welcomed into Anton’s family, who take him skating, a real treat for a boy of impecunious means.

Part 1 therefore sets the scene of mental health issues combined with raw poverty – and indeed Switzerland was not always the wealthy country it is today. Part 2 is based on the true story of Paul Grueninger, who is portrayed as Gustav’s father, Erich Perle. And Part 3 portrays the two boys, now in middle age, when Anton is coming into his own as a classical pianist, threatening the friendship dynamic the two have; success afterall might take Anton far away from the all too familiar village of fictional Matzlingen, where the novel is set.

Erich, Gustav’s father is a policeman in pre WW2 neutral Switzerland. He begins to help Jewish refugees into Switzerland, although the quotas are now filled, no further refugees are welcome. None may enter legally, so he sets up a system whereby they can access the country illegally. But institutional disgrace sees him ousted from the force and soon he crumbles and finally dies whilst Gustav is still a child. Emilie, Gustav’s mother, retreats into herself and cannot see beyond the loss of her husband, eaten away with anger at the actions that essentially took Erich from her. Emotionally she is not available to her child…

There is a Swiss gloss over the story which is paper thin if the reader chooses to engage with the story in more depth. Beneath the formality of Swiss society everyday lives are set out for us to observe, negative emotions to digest, yet there is no judgment. This is simply a multi-layered story, superbly told and well deserving of being shortlisted for the Costa 2016 Novel Award, where the judges, Matthew Bates, Nicci Gerrard and Lisa O’Kelly describe the work as “A deft, delicate and vivid book in three movements – pitch perfect and humane.” Absolutely.

The Gustav Sonata is a book that I took away with me on a trip to Switzerland. On a day when the clouds were rolling up the valley and heavy rain was threatening, I sat indoors with Kaffee and Kuchen and felt I could still connect to the country through words and a good story that offered a little history, insight and understanding of the culture just beyond my front door.

Tina for the TripFiction Team


You can connect with Rose Tremain via her website

And do come and connect with Team TripFiction via Twitter (@tripfiction), Facebook (TripFiction), Instagram (TripFiction) and Pinterest (TripFiction)… and now YouTube

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