Although I finished this novel pretty much ages ago, I felt like I couldn’t write a review straight away because I wasn’t actually sure how I felt about it. I went into it fairly blind; the only plot detail I knew was that it was set in Switzerland around the time of the Second World War and that Erich Perle, a policeman and Gustav’s father, had lost his job for helping Jewish refugees to enter the country by falsifying documents. I therefore thought that the plot would centre on this point and was surprised to find that, although Erich’s actions constitute a defining moment in the lives of all the characters, and the repercussions of his decision reverberate down the years for many of them, the novel actually chronicles the lives, loves and losses of Gustav, his family and his friends over a much longer time period (from the 1930s to the 1990s).
The book is split into three parts, firstly following Gustav’s rather deprived and loveless childhood with his mother, Emilie, and the beginnings and development of his relationship Anton, who is to be his lifelong friend. It then travels back in time to explore the story of Erich and Emilie, before leaping forward into the 1990s, when Gustav and Anton are both in their 50s. I thought that the decision to deconstruct the timeline in this way was very clever. By telling the story of Gustav’s childhood first, Tremain is able to retain Gustav’s childish perspective of his mother as a cold, austere, distant and ultimately mysterious figure, whose dislike of Anton, a Jew, is a puzzle to Gustav’s six-year-old mind. As the reader knows nothing at this point of Emilie’s background, this aura of mystery is much easier to construct and maintain. We also gain our first impression of Erich through what Emilie tells Gustav about him, and get a hazy impression of a distant yet heroic figure, almost an object of worship. The fact that I gained these first impressions of Emilie and Erich through Gustav’s eyes meant that I had formed ideas about their characters and relationship that I was ultimately forced to radically re-evaluate as I delved further into their early life together.
I felt that this book was quite brave in that many novels focus on characters who go on to live extraordinary lives or do extraordinary things. This novel, however, was an exploration of the starkness, the ordinariness and the disappointments of life. Gustav grows up in a bleak, loveless environment. Anton is destined for greatness as a pianist, but his stage fright forces him to abandon his dreams. When he does become successful later in life, he ends up returning home, a broken man. Emilie has such hopes for her future with Erich, but ultimately ends up bitter and alone, while Erich falls in love with somebody else. I could go on. There is no character who isn’t deeply flawed. I have heard the novel described as “melancholy”; I personally wavered between this and “depressing”. But, ultimately, Rose Tremain writes about complex (and sometimes unlikeable) people who are trying to get by as best they can, people who have been shaped by their circumstances and who are clinging to whatever they can to survive. Despite the rather sombre feel of this book, which is further emphasised by the rather stark and unadorned style of writing, the story remained rather compelling and I was interested to know where each storyline would end up. Note that I said “rather” rather than “very”; “interested” instead of fascinated, however.
I have to say that the novel’s central relationship, that between Anton and Gustav, particularly annoyed me. Gustav seemed so passive, allowing Anton’s capricious nature and his sense of self-importance to dominate him, both as a child and an adult. Anton seems to expect that Gustav will always be there, catering to his every whim. Gustav is unselfishly devoted to Anton throughout their childhood, but this devotion is thrown back in his face many times. When Anton’s musical talent is discovered later in his life and he is whisked away to Geneva to record an album, he abandons his family and Gustav without a backward glance. When his new, glamorous life falls to pieces, Gustav is straight there to take care of him. Whether this loyalty is admirable or misguided I will leave to your own interpretation. Although I really appreciated this novel for its exploration of the complexities of human nature and relationships, I couldn’t help my occasional frustration. On the other hand, I really loved reading about Gustav’s friendship with the irrepressible Lottie, whose vibrant nature was a breath of fresh air among an otherwise rather cheerless cast.
My annoyance with some of the characters probably wasn’t helped by the audio recording. I can only compare certain parts of the narration to somebody being intentionally patronising or perhaps chivvying along a particularly petulant child. The speech was slow and the words were over-emphasised. I think I would still have had certain reservations about the novel had I not listened to the audiobook, but it definitely contributed to making slightly irritating characters even more so! Having said that, I understand why this novel has been a prize nominee. It is brave and bleak in the way that critics seem to adore, and demonstrates a unique insight into human nature. It serves as a reminder that novels do not need to be action-packed and full of heroism. While I can’t say it’s been a favourite read of mine this year so far, it was certainly worthwhile and Rose Tremain has a way with words. This would make an excellent book club book – I think it has the power to split opinion and provides a great deal of material for discussion.
Star Rating: 3/5