Once upon a time (well, a month or so ago) I was determined to read all of this year’s Baileys shortlisted books before the winner was announced. With five days to go and three of the novels not yet read that is most definitely not going to happen. My failure is tempered by the knowledge that I have had to give over precious reading time to writing – a new novel which I am obsessed with. Nevertheless I had already reserved a couple of the Baileys books from the library so they will not go unread. Rose Tremain’s book attracted me first due to its relative brevity (as well as being due back to the library today).
Set in Switzerland and beginning in 1947 Gustav Perle grows up in a tiny flat in a small town. He lives with his mother, Emilie. His father, a hero says his mother, died when he was a baby. When new boy Anton moves to Gustav’s town, the boys quickly become friends. Anton is a talented pianist, a prodigy he tells Gustav. Emilie doesn’t like Anton visiting their small flat. Anton’s family are Jewish and Emilie tells Gustav that his father died trying to protect the Jews during the war. Tremain cleverly uses Anton’s constantly supportive parents to contrast the indifference that Emilie shows to her son. When Emilie contracts pneumonia and has to be taken to hospital, Gustav is left alone with only a friendly neighbour to help. She tells him he must wash the sheets where his mother wet the bed, to weak to get to the bathroom, and there is a heart-breaking scene where he goes down to the laundry but is too little to reach the light switch and has to leave the sheets there until the next day.
The middle part of the book takes place before Gustav’s birth, the story of how his parents met. This is a bleak novel and so I wasn’t expecting a happy tale, but in some ways I could understand why Emilie had turned out the way she did once I knew what she’d already been through (though she is never portrayed as likeable, rather slightly calculating and self-pitying). The real circumstances around her husband’s death were even more tragic than imagined, though I felt that here the rather Swiss restraint that Tremain employs could have been relaxed. Having become involved with Erich’s predicament I found that his actual death was rather anticlimactic. I don’t think I needed it to be more dramatic in terms of what happens, only I think I wanted more detail. I wanted to be there, and to know his thoughts, rather than finding out about it later, if that makes sense.
This is the sort of novel which is quietly excellent. The prose is perfect and never overwrought. I found the dialogue a little rigid but it fit the style of the novel. Both Gustav and Anton are very restrained and, certainly with Anton, there is the suggestion that if they let go too much then all will be lost. I am full of admiration for this book, but I never quite fell in love with it.