Book Review: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Europe is moving, slowly, almost blindly, like a sleepwalker, towards catastrophe.”  Tremain narrates the feeling of Europe during 1937 – but does this not tug at you just a little?

This book first caught my eye when I saw it shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards 2016.  It is the first of Tremain’s works I have read and this did not disappoint.

The novel is split into three parts.  Without ruining the story: the first is where we meet a young boy, Gustav, starved of love and attention from his mother who is struggling to make ends meet and his friend Anton who is a budding pianist battling with the high expectations given by his somewhat suffocating parents. The second part is where we learn of how Gustav’s parents meet and why his father earned the ‘hero’ status given by his mother.  In the last section of the book we see Gustav and Anton as grown adults.  One very much dependant on the other in different ways.

The story itself is slow and engaging.  The title: The Gustav Sonata is incredibly apt.  Tones of music and love run throughout this story which is in effect a deep love story set in confusing times. Tremain deals with some heavy subjects in an effective subtly way.  Firstly, the mother – Mutti as known to Gustav or Emilie – is a complex character.  She ‘wins’ her love having set her mind to making it happen.  A self-mastery.  This theme runs through the book.  The power of the mind over that of one’s feelings. Secondly, the relationship between Gustav and Anton made me think of the relationship between Jude and Willem from A Little Life.  Both very much reliant on the other.  Not as destructive however, just as slow burning.  Thirdly, Tremain’s ability to write about the deep passion Gustav’s father feels later in his marriage for an another is intense but never overpowering.

The fact that this book is only circa 250 pages is astounding.  I felt it could have gone on for longer, some of the above themes delved into more deeply but having finished it I now consider that Remain left it where it needed to be.  A very moving piece of literature.

In short, The Gustav Sonata is a compassionate, musical and heart breaking novel of which I loved every word.

Have any of you read it?  Did any of you read any of Tremain’s novels?

Recommended for: if you enjoyed A Little Life – you will enjoy this

Rating: 5/5

Favourite quote: “…where does “concern” begin and end?  My friends, that is the great question of our times: how far are we to go, in showing concern for our fellow human beings?  We strive for indifference.  As members of the police we are taught to feel it.  But is not indifference a moral crime.”

Thanks for reading – I hope you enjoyed it!

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13 thoughts on “Book Review: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

  1. I read The Road Home years ago by Tremain and loved it so not sure why I haven’t read anything else of hers yet. It’s funny because I’ve had my eye on this and A Little Life and now I’m excited to read both. Thanks for the review.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I thought I should check out your review after replying to your comment on my blog … and it seems we’re in agreement that it was good enough that it could have been longer! I think I was so interested in Gustav and Anton, and their friendship, that I felt the whole novel could have focused on them. But overall I did enjoy it and found much of it really beautifully written and interesting. I did find Lottie going out on the pull towards the end a bit disturbing though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Why thank you! I completely agree, it would have been interesting to see their relationship develop and to understand how co dependant they really were. I think Rose Tremain could have pushed that. Saying that, I absolutely got swept up by the romance in the second part of the novel. It was incredibly gripping and felt real which is quite difficult to convey I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Do it! I looked at it for ages – I also have the hardback so carting it back and forth from work was a tall order but honestly…it’s amazing! I’m yet to review it as I feel like it was just too good to summarise. Just wow. I promise you, judging by the books you read and like, you will love it! Read the first chapter and see if you get hooked…

        Liked by 1 person

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