What’s it about?
What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in ‘neutral’ Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav’s father has mysteriously died, and his adored mother Emilie is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav’s childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.
As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav’s life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav’s are entwined.
This was our book club choice for April and was an interesting but somewhat non-eventful read.
I’ve never read a Rose Tremain novel before, and although I’m not rushing out to read another, this is a beautifully told story about the impact on families living in a neutral country during World War 2 but moreover about friendship, love and what it means to experience both, or in Gustav’s case to not experience his mother’s true love and how this affected him his whole life.
So yeah, most of this novel is quite sad. I was instantly drawn to Gustav because of his upbringing. The lack of emotion and love from his bitter mother Emilie, Gustav leads a life devoid of any real relationships; pinning his hopes on a childhood friendship that is very one-sided, because Anton, as an adult, is incredibly selfish and not very likeable, but Gustav persists in continuing the friendship.
There were some secondary plotlines which I found to be more engaging than the main thread. A soldier tasked with only taking photographs on the day of liberation at Bergen-Belsen…heart-breaking and fascinating and I wanted more. Gustav’s father died too early for me and I wanted him to have that child with the woman he was involved with as it would have made for a more dramatic climatic read. I guess this wasn’t the author’s intention because the whole book reads on the same level, as if told on a plateau, with no highs till the end, so a bit of hard work to get there – do you get what I mean?
All in all, with too much of predictable cliché ending and the most interesting characters not encouraged so the reader is left to imagine more for them made it just an ok read for me.
Author link: Website
Small print for info
No of pages: 320