Walter Scott Prize Shortlist: Rose Tremain’s ‘The Gustav Sonata’

 

I’ve been trotting around Scotland over the past few days, traveling to the Isle of Arran and riding through the western coast of the mainland. Though I took along a book, I didn’t have much time for reading.

There’s just been too much to see, like this:

Waterfall, the Trossachs near Loch Lomond

 

And this:

 

Isle of Arran from the ferry

 

Also, lots and lots of this, because it’s my thing:

 

St Bride’s cemetery, Isle of Arran

 

I managed to finish another Walter Scott Prize shortlisted title before I left – a quick and easy read after the complexity of Days Without End. I just didn’t have time to write about it until now. Back from our journey and marooned inside due to torrential rain, laundry and blogging are once again front and center.

So, here I am.

 

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain – Walter Scott Shortlist read #3

 

Novels with children as main characters often use the conceit of parental absence, authors either making them orphans or creating neglectful, abusive or distracted guardians. This allows characters to take charge of their fates, becoming fully realized without the necessity of running everything through an adult filter.

Tremain gives her main character, Gustav Perle, the ghost of a mother. Numbed by a past dominated by death and betrayal, she cares for her son offhandedly. At best, you could call her aloof. Tremain gives Gustav maturity and a strong sense of himself, using the mother’s back story to flesh out the plot. Gustav is affected, not stunted, by the full weight of his mother’s baggage.

 

He fell over frequently, but he never cried, though the ice was hard, the hardest surface his bones had ever met. He taught himself to laugh instead. Laughing was a bit like crying. It was a strange convulsion; it just came from a different bit of your mind. The trick was to move the crying out of that bit and let the laughter in. And so he’d pick himself up and carry on, laughing.

  • The Gustav Sonata

 

Set in Switzerland roughly a generation past WW II, Gustav’s mother paints a picture of a father who died a hero protecting the Jews – a partial truth. When Gustav develops a close friendship with a Jewish boy, resentment and bitterness cause his mother anguish. She cannot forgive the Jews for the peripheral part they played in her husband’s spiral into ruin, if not his literal death. Gustav’s friendship lasts a lifetime; his mother’s misery dogs her to her grave.

The Gustav Sonata, like Barry’s Days Without End, depends heavily on the period of its setting. It’s a smooth, swiftly moving novel, elevated by complexity and lyricism. A book that grabs quickly and flows swiftly, it’s a curl up in a comfy chair and read novel.

Pouring rain in Scotland – perfect for reading.

 

If Tremain’s book hadn’t been pitted against Barry’s, I’d put it in the potential prize-winner pool. Next to Barry, pretty much every other writer pales. Despite my puzzlement as to Graham Swift’s nomination for his Mothering Sunday, why it’s considered a historical novel at all, for sheer skill Tremain cannot touch him. She writes compelling prose, but this book isn’t quite there.

My money’s still on Sebastian Barry for the win, especially after reading bits and pieces of Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree and Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. I’m skipping Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist because it has no appeal for me, leaving just Hannah Kent as the unknown quantity.

Jo Baker’s book is similar in feel to Tremain’s: a linear story with empathetic characters, set roughly in the same time period. To my mind, these two cancel each other out.

Spufford’s novel, written in a modernized 18th-century style, may be a rival for Barry as far as complexity. Early impressions are it replaces Barry’s lyricism with a tongue-in-cheek, subtle humor, a second great hook deserving of critical attention. And, another book heavily dependent on its historical setting.

I’m not worried about finishing the rest of the books before the awards ceremony on June 17. Torrential rain is in the forecast for much of the next five or so days, so more travel won’t be in the cards. Plenty of time to get caught up, finish the books, and get ready to attend the event. In addition to receiving the award, the authors will participate in a panel discussion on historical fiction. Definitely looking forward to that.

Expect me back within the next few days to give thoughts on Spufford and Baker. Hannah Kent I’ll save for last.

Still raining. Back to the books.

 

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