Gustav lives with his widowed mother in Switzerland, just after the Second World War. A young boy, he is raised by his mother to value Switzerland’s neutrality, and told to master his own emotions. Gustav forms an intense friendship with a new arrival at his school, a Jewish boy called Anton, who is set to be a piano prodigy but is plagued by performance nerves. The Gustav Sonata charts their lifelong friendship, showing the complexity and importance of such relationships in a way that reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Gustav’s father was a Swiss policeman – but how did he die, and does it have any connection with his mother’s strong dislike of Anton and his Jewish background?
But neutrality and mastery may not get you the intimacy you crave. To be connected with life and other people, you might need to take risks. And isolation is not a neutral state.
I am a Tremain fan, especially of her outstanding novel Sacred Country, a great story about a trans person. But you don’t have to be a fan of hers to enjoy The Gustav Sonata, as it’s a very readable and thoughtful historical novel. In her exploration of the gaps in what people kept silent about after the Second World War, she evokes some of W G Sebald’s concerns. But the theme of friendship remains the primary concern, and she does justice to the epigraph she has chosen from Montaigne: “If anyone should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I feel it could not otherwise be expressed than by making the answer, ‘Because it was he, because it was I’”.