‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain – A Fan’s Notes


‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain    (2016) –  240 pages



I have been a devotee of Rose Tremain’s fiction for over twenty-five years.  First I read ‘Restoration’ and ‘Sacred Country’, then went back and read two of her earlier works ‘Sadler’s Birthday’ and ‘The Swimming-Pool Season’, and I have continued to read her novels and stories up to today.  I even seem to recall that she used the pen name Rosemary Tremain early in her career.

Why have I been drawn to Tremain’s fiction?  Her writing has the qualities that I much appreciate in a fiction writer.  Her writing is perceptive, empathetic, methodical, unsentimental, and precise, and yet she can also be light-hearted and even humorous.  She can deal with complex moral situations and capture the poignancy of the lives of people dealing with them.   She is also quite unpredictable as to what she will write about next, so her novels come across as new and exciting.

‘The Gustav Sonata’ is another fine example of Rose Tremain’s work.  At the center of this story is the father Erich Perle who is a policeman.  However he is fired for falsifying dates on forms so that Jewish people who were escaping Austria in 1938 could stay in Switzerland.  So this man gets fired for an act of courage for which he should have received a medal.  That is life.

Erich dies soon after his firing.  He leaves a wife Emilie and a small son Gustav.   Emilie blames the Jewish people for Erich’s death, and she remains an anti-Semite long afterwards.  However her son Gustav becomes best friends with a Jewish boy Anton starting at age five, a friendship that continues throughout their long lives.  Emilie and Gustav are very poor, while Anton’s family is quite prosperous, so they take Gustav along on their family trips.  Gustav has a positive steadying influence on the more anxious, temperamental Anton.

‘The Gustav Sonata’ is divided into three major sections.  The first section takes place in the late 1940s when Gustav meets his new friend Anton.  The second section goes back in time before Gustav is born and describes how Erich and Emilie meet and wed.  The last section takes place in the 1990s when Gustav and Anton are in their late fifties, Gustav running a small hotel and Anton a music teacher.

Another quality I like about Rose Tremain’s writing is that she is adept enough to only deal with the parts which are important to her story so we don’t have to waste a lot of time covering these people’s entire lives.

I will end with what John Boyne wrote in the Irish Times:

“In fact I have long considered her (Rose Tremain) to be the finest British novelist at work today, more consistent than McEwan, more prolific than Ishiguro, and less erratic than Amis, although the title is more frequently accorded to one of those three (no surprises here) men.”

I agree.


Grade:    A


12 responses to this post.

  1. […] See also Tony’s enthusiastic review at Tony’s Book World. […]


  2. Yes, I liked this too, and I’m also an enthusiast. My only complaint is that I have trouble keeping up with her output! I’ve read (and reviewed) this one, but I still have Trespass and Merivel on the TBR, and I bought them when they were first released…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lisa,
      I’ve read and loved Trespass, but haven’t gotten to Merivel yet. I also read her collection of stories from last year, ‘The American Lover’. I did go through a spell of not reading Rose Tremain, because I wasn’t too excited about ‘The Colour’ or ‘Music and Silence’. However she came roaring back with ‘The Road Home’ and she is now again on my must-read list.


      • Ooh, I loved Music and Silence… but yes, I could take or leave The Colour except for it the New Zealand setting being interesting because I didn’t know anything about their gold rush.


        • Oh, I ADORED Music & Silence (read pre-blog) but was so disappointed with the Road Home I’ve not read anything by her since. I have a copy of the Gustav Sonata though, so might give it a whirl soon: I’ve seen plenty of good reviews of it now.


          • Hi kimbofo,
            Funny how some of us like this one and are disappointed by that other. I thought Trespass was a particularly fine novel, and I generally do like her stories.


        • I suppose it wasn’t really a slump on Tremain’s part, just a variance in we readers’ tastes. 🙂


  3. You sold me on this one! I was hesitating because I have had a patchy ride with Tremain (didnt like Music and Silence that much) but this one does sound rather special


    • Hi Booker Talk,
      I felt with ‘Music and Silence’ and’The Colour’, Tremain’s novels were beginning to sprawl, but she seems to now have tightened up her style and now comes up with these 250-page fairly compact novels with really offbeat subjects which I like.


  4. I am a fan of Tremain too and should be reading her instead of some of the lesser known new books that have made their way by some kind of whimsy on to my list. I appreciate your severe grading system: you’re writing real reviews instead of the promo that I see a little too often. (And that’s why I read dead writers, she adds.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • HI Kat,
      I try to maintain all these balances in my reading :
      Authors new to me vs Authors I have read before
      Men vs Women
      Classics vs Modern Novels
      Novels in English vs Translated Novels

      One balance I don’t aim for is good writing vs bad writing. I do everything I possibly can to make sure that the next book I read is well-written and holds my interest.
      Perhaps I take this fiction-reading too seriously. 🙂


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