The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

“So you see,” she said, “you have to be like Switzerland. Do you understand me? You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then, you will have the right kind of life.”

Switzerland is well known for its neutrality during the Second World War but, as we see in Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata, even remaining neutral didn’t mean that Switzerland and its people completely escaped the effects of war. The Gustav Sonata explores some of these effects, as well as looking, on a more personal level, at other meanings of neutrality and of courage, separateness and strength.

The novel is divided into three parts, presumably to resemble the movements of a sonata. The first is set just after the war, in 1947, and introduces us to Gustav Perle, a five-year-old boy who lives in the fictional Swiss town of Matzlingen with his mother, Emilie. Gustav’s best friend at kindergarten is Anton Zwiebel, but when he brings Anton home one day, he is confused by Emilie’s reaction. It’s obvious that she disapproves of Anton, but why? Is it because he is Jewish – and if so, what is her problem with Jews? These questions won’t be answered until later in the book, but in the meantime we continue to follow Gustav and Anton throughout their childhoods and into their teens.

As Gustav spends more and more time with the Zwiebel family, he becomes aware of how different Anton’s life is from his own; he senses that Anton’s parents really seem to care about their son’s future, unlike his own mother who can be so cold and distant. Anton, however, is having trouble of his own – as a talented musician he dreams of a career as a concert pianist, but his ambitions look set to be threatened by his debilitating stage fright.

In the second section of the book, we go back in time to the 1930s and the early days of Emilie’s relationship with Gustav’s father, Erich Perle. At last we can begin to understand Emilie’s behaviour and the reasons for her animosity towards Anton’s family. Finally, for the third part of the novel, we return to the stories of Gustav and Anton, who are now middle-aged men, and we find out what has been happening to them in the intervening years. I don’t always like books which jump around in time like this, as they can sometimes seem disjointed, but Rose Tremain handles the structure very well. My only slight criticism is that I thought the Gustav and Anton we meet in part three feel too similar to the Gustav and Anton from part one – I found both characters convincing as children but not so convincing as adults.

I particularly enjoyed the wartime section in the middle of the book, dealing with the relationship between Emilie and Erich and showing how a decision made by the Swiss government changed both of their lives. As I’ve said, the neutral stance taken by Switzerland during the war is only one type of neutrality examined in this novel – there’s also the neutrality of one person towards another (‘staying separate and strong’) and the question of how far it is possible to remain neutral when faced with a moral dilemma which requires a choice to be made. I’m sure we can all think of times in our own lives when doing nothing was as bad or worse than doing something!

This is the third Rose Tremain novel I’ve read, the others being Restoration and its sequel Merivel. I found the writing style and overall tone of this one very different from the other two, which reflects the very different subject and setting. The Gustav Sonata is one of the shortlisted titles for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Of the books I’ve read from the list so far, this isn’t my favourite, but I did enjoy it and won’t be at all disappointed if it wins.

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The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

The Virgin Blue was Tracy Chevalier’s debut novel, first published in 1997. The only other book I’ve read by Chevalier is her most recent one, Remarkable Creatures, but I found both the writing style and atmosphere of this one entirely different.

The Virgin Blue follows two separate storylines, one from the present and one from the past, which eventually become woven together. In the modern day story, we meet Ella Turner who leaves her home in California and moves to the small French village of Lisle-sur-Tarn when her husband is offered a new job in France. Ella has trouble fitting into her new community – the local people are hostile and unwelcoming, and only the librarian Jean-Paul makes any attempt at friendship. As she begins to dig deeper into her family history, Ella’s hair begins to turn gradually red and, haunted by dreams of a brilliant blue, she starts to become aware of the parallels between her own life and that of her 16th century ancestor, a girl called Isabelle.

Isabelle de Moulin was a young peasant girl, known as La Rousse in reference to her red hair, who married Etienne Tournier, a man from a Huguenot family. With her red hair, her skills as a midwife and her love of the Virgin Mary and the colour blue, Isabelle is an object of suspicion. When the Tourniers find themselves under threat from their neighbouring Catholics, they are forced to flee France for Geneva in Switzerland, where they can follow their religion in freedom. It’s Isabelle’s tragic story that forms the second thread in The Virgin Blue.

I thought the alternating time periods in this book were handled well and they were each written in a distinctive style so that there could be no confusion. The Isabelle chapters had a dreamlike feel, almost like reading a fairytale. These chapters were also very sad and dark. Poor Isabelle was surrounded by cruel, vindictive people and seemed to have very little happiness in her life. Her story unfolded very slowly, being interspersed with Ella’s, and from the beginning there was always a sense of foreboding, a feeling that something bad was going to happen to Isabelle or her children.

I loved the setting of rural France, with its beautiful countryside and picturesque villages. Chevalier gives just enough detail to bring the landscape to life, without weighing the story down with too much description. The one thing that let this novel down for me was the characters. With the possible exception of Jean-Paul none of them felt quite real to me. I thought Rick, Ella’s husband, was especially bland and wooden, to the point where I didn’t even care what happened to him. The characters in the 16th century storyline never really came to life for me either.

So The Virgin Blue, for me, was an enjoyable but forgettable book. Despite the weak characters, I was able to become absorbed in the story while I was reading it but by the next day it was already fading from my mind. Having read Chevalier’s oldest book and her newest I’m now looking forward to reading the ones in between!