Rose Tremain: from Restoration to the Gustav Sonata

 

I first discovered the writing of Rose Tremain, when I joined Waterstone’s in Bath as a bookseller in 1989 and was given her novel ‘Restoration’. Her attention to detail and sharp wit drew me in immediately: her tale of anti-hero, physician and rogue Robert Merivel, courtier to Charles 11, was a tour de force. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize and was responsible for making her name. In 2012 she returned to her wonderful creation, with the publication of ‘Merivel’, picking up the story fifteen years later.  Tom Cox writing in the Guardian said,

‘Merivel does seem like a man of his time, but ends up coming across quite a bit like a man of ours, too’.

In the years that followed, I read all her books: the historical novels ‘Music and Silence’, in which Peter Claire arrives at the Danish court in 1629 to join the Royal Orchestra, and ‘The Colour’, set during the gold rush in New Zealand in the 1860s, her love story set in Paris ‘The Way I Found Her’,  ‘The Road Home’, in which widower Lev travels from Eastern Europe to make a new life in London and ‘Trespass’, a modern thriller set in Southern France.  I always breathe a sigh of relief on starting one of her novels: for me she is the epitome of good writing. Her language is precise and the landscape and era are always evoked with a clarity that takes us with her in our imaginations.

I was reminded of all her remarkable qualities as a writer when I reread her exquisite collection of short stories ‘Wildtrack’, published by Full Circle editions, with evocative illustrations by Jeff Fisher. The publisher specializes in writers and artists associated with the East of England, and these stories celebrate Rose Tremain’s passion for ‘the wide skies and watery byways of East Anglia’ in which, in the words of Merivel, who is exiled to East Anglia in ‘Restoration’, ‘the landscape became, as it were, less and the sky more.’

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In her introduction to ‘Wildtrack’ Rose Tremain says that two of her stories, “Wildtrack’ and ‘Peerless’ relate the debilitating sense of loss of her two male protagonists and their efforts to reconnect and ‘find something to hold onto in the future that will give their lives purpose and meaning. She continues:

‘This important question, how we find meaning in a secular life, especially after the age of sixty of so, is one which is worthy, I think, of tireless exploration, and I have addressed it again in my novel ‘Tresspass’ (Chatto, 2010). Quite often short stories may prove to be essais for larger works of fiction, even though the writer doesn’t know this at the time’.

This is pertinent to her recent novel ‘The Gustav Sonata’, which i read this year with an increasing sense of wonder, both for the narrative structure of the novel, and for the quality of the writing. The novel tells the story of a friendship: Gustav meets Anton at primary school in Switzerland. His father has died, and he lives with his mother. From his stark childhood, the novel moves back in time to tell the story of Gustav’s father, a policeman who makes the decision to help refugees who are no longer legally permitted to enter the country, with unforeseen consequences. In the final section of the book, Gustav and Anton have grown up. Gustav has been running a guesthouse, and Anton, despite his desperate stage fright, has decided to try his luck as a concert pianist.

There are so many layers to this novel and it is very hard to do it justice on paper. I was moved by Rose Tremain’s skill in telling her tale, one that will resonate with every reader, exploring as it does the relationships and decisions that affect our lives and make us human

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