The blurb is as follows:
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.
Fierce, astringent, profoundly tender, Rose Tremain’s beautifully orchestrated novel asks the question, what does it do to a person, or to a country, to pursue an eternal quest for neutrality, and self-mastery, while all life's hopes and passions continually press upon the borders and beat upon the gate.
Got that? It is a very accurate description of the book.
There are going to be sort-of spoilers below (though not for the end). I do not imagine that they will come as a big shock to anyone in fandom, and they didn't to me on account of how I'd read the blurb, but they seems to have surprised the reviewers a lot.
As you may have spotted from the first line of the summary, part of the story of the book is the fact that Gustav is in love with his best friend. He isn't consciously aware of this fact for most of the book, but it is plain from the narrative. To be very, very clear, Tremain doesn't pull this out of her hat 80% of the way in, it is much of the point of the story, that Gustav - whose father is dead and whose mother for reasons he doesn't discover for a very long time, but which are revealed earlier to the reader, is unable to connect to him - is nonetheless a person with a profound capacity for love and the desire to make other people happy, often at his own expense, oh yes, and in love with the boy he met in Kindergarten. The only question for the reader, and it's a big enough question, is whether the characters will ever realise this and end up together or not, much as in The Siege of Krishnapur we know that the relief is coming, but not if it will make it in time.
This explicitness about the theme, this obviousness that this is the whole bloody point of the book, is why it is so baffling that when I went to look at reviews so many of them seemed to have been taken by surprised by the final section. They thought it was a book about friendship! Manly, masculine friendship! But no, suddenly the question asked in the first line of the book starts to be answered further in the plot and they are baffled by this turn of events. It's frankly weird how much this aspect of the novel is missed.**These aren't bad reviews, far from it. They tease out the novel's complexities in subtle and sensitive ways and drew my attention to elements I had overlooked. But they keep being surprised by the fact that in a novel in which the protagonists have kissed in a sort of childhood roleplay real-life dream, in which Gustav is given no sexual relationships of indications of feeling whatsoever, in which he tells his best friend's mother that he loves him, that the explanation of the emotional side of the book might be that Gustav is in love with Anton. It seems to me that this can only be because of their expectations of novels of male friendship***, which however much homoeroticism they involve, end up affirming their protagonists' fundamental heterosexuality, because there is absolutely no way that if Anton had been Antonia the reviewers wouldn't have known exactly what was going on. It's true that there's a lack of overt eroticism, fitting for a novel that is fundamentally about suppression and restraint, but again, one feels that wouldn't be an issue for Antonia.
In short, it's a beautifully-written book, the characters are finely drawn and well-realised, and I've missed out large chunks of events including the story of Gustav's parents' marriage, which is fundamental to the story. I heartily recommend it.
Oh yes, and now I have to read The Magic Mountain.
*Not entirely its fault. I was expecting a novel about the court of Christian IV of Denmark to focus on Christian IV of Denmark, not some random English lutist.
**Honorable mention to the Telegraph, which didn't. And there's precious little honorable about the Telegraph these days.
***I re-read Embers last week and confirmed I was right to be underwhelmed. Frankly I'd have shot the General if I'd have had to spend any length of time in his company, I'm only amazed that Konrad refrained.
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