They knew it was strange. But in the strangeness of it lay its fascination and its beauty
Tremain’s career has already spanned an impressive four decades, but she shows no signs of slowing down, or of tackling subjects that are any less visceral. In her most recent novel, The Gustav Sonata (2016), she asks the question of where the line lies between friendship and love, or if indeed, there is a line at all.
Spanning three time periods, Tremain’s novel is more than a Bildungsroman, for it examines what makes an individual before the individual himself is even made. Part I follows the childhood of Gustav Perle, who lives with his Mutti in the town of Matzlingen, Switzerland, in 1947. His Father died a hero, but Gustav doesn’t know how, and his mother seems strangely cold, but Gustav doesn’t know why. It is only after he meets Anton in kindergarten, that he realises how lonely his life has been. Part I continues to chart the blossoming friendship between Gustav and Anton, while the dramas and tensions of their parents play out in the background, simultaneously momentous and irrelevant as far as the children are concerned. These adult dramas take centre stage in Part II, however, as we witness the young romance between Gustav’s parents, ten years earlier. Part III, in turn, jumps forward, to where we see Gustav as a grown man.
Tremain is masterful at revealing what bubbles beneath the surface. The novel is characterised by Swiss neutrality - Gustav is constantly attempting to “master himself” and subdue his overwhelming feelings. But Tremain allows the reader to peer beyond this mastering, to see the truth and power of human emotion which can never truly be controlled. The novel collides happiness with tragedy, as it explores the heart wrenching experiences of love and friendship, not merely between Gustav and Anton, but between Gustav’s mother and his father, his father and his lover, Gustav and his father’s lover. Every relationship that Tremain evokes is unexpected, and yet touching.
Like the music for which the novel is named, Tremain’s narrative is punctuated with recurring motifs, themes and patterns. The beauty of this superb novel lies not only in its evocative portrayal of subdued emotion, but in its artfully crafted structure. The three ‘movements’ each tell their own story, yet each story combines to tell us who Gustav really is. The ending manages to be satisfying but not cloying, offering a glimpse of true happiness within the complex mess of human relationships.