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Book Review: “The Gustav Sonata” by Rose Tremain

On his first day in his new kindergarten class in small-town Switzerland, Anton Zwiebel can do nothing but weep uncontrollably. The teacher tries to console him, but Anton is helpless, carried off by the inertia of his emotions. She pairs him off with a friendless boy, Gustav Perle, whose first words to Anton are: “My mother says it’s better not to cry. She says you have to master yourself.” Anton immediately stops crying. This exchange, where the ever-caring Gustav stabilizes the torrentially emotional Anton, will come to define their relationship.

The story of Gustav and Anton as children in the years immediately following World War II composes the first of three movements in Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. Part Two traces the pre- and mid-war relationship of Gustav’s parents, while Part Three moves fifty years into the future to see the final crescendo of Gustav and Anton. Despite the different times and historical contexts, Tremain, winner of numerous awards, including the Whitbread Award, the Orange Prize, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, skillfully investigates the philosophical implications and human costs of neutrality…”


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