Because the authors’ names rhyme, and I haven’t got a huge amount to say about these novels, despite enjoying them both a lot, here’s a twofer for you:
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
This was our book group read, discussed back at the start of the month. It was mostly a hit with our group, although a couple of members wanted more drama and didn’t find the central character as empathetic as the rest of us did.
Set in post-WWII Switzerland, Gustav grows up in a small town. Since his father died, his mother Emilie is very distant to Gustav, and he is a lonely boy in a poor household with only a single toy train to play with. At school he meets Anton whose Jewish family is well-off, the father is a banker. the two boys become best of friends, although Anton, a budding pianist, is rather driven but at the same time a bag of nerves. Anton’s family are kind to Gustav, taking him on holiday with them to Davos, where the boys enjoy a time that will remain a very special memory to them.The next section of the book flashes back to before the war and we meet Gustav’s parents properly, how Erich the policeman fell for Emilie when she made sure he noticed her. War intervenes, and Erich’s job includes preventing Jewish refugees from entering Switzerland – but he can’t bring himself to do it – secretly letting many in. He is discovered and renounced, losing his job as a consequence, something Emilie can’t forgive and explains her coolness towards Anton’s family later. In the third part of the novel, we travel forward again to see what has happened to Gustav and Anton, now in their fifties. Anton had not been able to achieve his dream of becoming a concert pianist due to his stage fright, he teaches instead at a local school, until an offer and a new relationship beckons him back to the piano and he moves to Geneva. Gustav, however, had inherited some money and bought a hotel which he runs very successfully. He never married, and misses Anton so much…
In the edition I read, (Vintage 2017) Tremain has written an afterword in which she describes how the book is written using ‘sonata form’- Exposition with 1st and 2nd subject, development, recapituation and coda, and I could see that plainly – but only after I’d read the afterword! She also tells how she deliberately left lots unsaid, and that was one of the joys of reading this understated and beautifully crafted novel. Gustav is such a lovely man: a good shoulder for others to cry on, big-hearted, a good boss, a super host – but, there is an emptiness in his life, an Anton-shaped hole. Will he get the chance to fill it before it is too late? This is a subtle novel that gives much. Only the second Tremain I’ve read (the first was Restoration years ago), she is an author I hope to explore further. (9/10)
Source: Own copy. Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata (2016), paperback 318 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)
The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain
Translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken
This is Laurain’s second novel to be translated into English, but his fifth overall, but completes my reading of his available work in English (a new novel is due next spring!). As always, Laurain uses an artefact to drive the plot – in this case the titular red notebook.
The story begins late one evening with a grim encounter in which a woman is mugged and her bag stolen. The mugger also pushed her hitting her head on a door frame. Unable to get into her flat, the woman staggers to a nearby hotel, where she passes out from the head injury.
The next day bookshop owner Laurent is taking a walk before opening up shop, when he sees an expensive purple handbag on top of one of the bins. Knowing the bin-men were on the way, he rescues it and tries to hand it in at the police station, but they’re not really interested. So he takes it home, and starts looking at the contents to see if he can find out who to return it to. Of course the thief had made off with all the normal forms of identity plus wallet. In the bag is a red notebook, full of jottings:
Walking along the water’s edge just as everyone else is leaving the beach.
The name ‘americano’, but I prefer to drink a ‘mojito’.
The smell of mint, and basil. […]
Having lunch in the garden.
Erik Satie. Buy an ERIK SATIE BOX SET.
I’m scared of birds (especially pigeons).
Think of other things ‘I’m scared of’.
Laurent is attracted to the woman who’s written these thoughts. He is determined to find out who she is so he can give the bag back, and who knows…
Thus begins a lovely detective story, in which Laurent’s teenaged daughter will play a crucial role, he’ll be happy when his current girlfriend dumps him, and he’ll become a cat sitter – amongst other things. I shan’t say any more, because this novel is so delightful. Once we’re past the initial mugging, it is just a joy, upbeat and feelgood, full-on romantic and fun. Laurain (and his translators) balance the Gallic whimsy so well, I couldn’t help but adore this one after his second novel, but fifth to be translated, Smoking Kills (see here) left me a little underwhelmed (see here) earlier this summer. (10/10)
Source: Own copy Antoine Laurain, The Red Notebook (2014, trans 2015) Gallic books paperback 240 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)