The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

Gustav Pearle lives with his mother, Emilie, in Matzlingen, Switzerland. His father, Erich, is dead. Emilie tells Gustav that his father was a hero and he died helping the Jews. As a result, Emilie dislikes Jews.

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Aged five in 1947, Gustav meets Anton Zwiebel at kindergarten. Gustav’s the only person able to stop Anton from crying; he does so by repeating his mother’s phrase that ‘you have to master yourself’. Gustav and Anton become firm friends and are soon spending time with each other outside of school. This disconcerts Emilie, not only because Anton and his family are Jewish but also because they are rich while she has fallen on hard times. She worries that Gustav will expect a certain type of lifestyle because he’s been exposed to it. At six, Anton is already a talented pianist:

There was so much that had been confusing about ‘The Linden Tree’ that Gustav almost wished Anton hadn’t played it. It wasn’t just the business about the notes sounding like rustling leaves (and yet they didn’t, not quite), or the sad man who was and was not there; it was the fact of Anton being able to play this complicated song. How could he have learned it? When?

And then Gustav had another thought which he found very disturbing. He imagined that at the very time when he and Emilie were on their hands and knees cleaning the Church of Sankt Johann, on Saturday mornings, Anton was with his piano teacher. He and Emilie were scrubbing and dusting and polishing while Anton was playing music by Schubert.

The novel’s divided into three sections: the first covers Gustav’s childhood, his friendship with Anton, Anton’s attempts to become a concert pianist, and Emilie’s illnesses both mental and physical. The second goes back in time and tells the story of Emilie and Erich’s relationship, and the third travels forward to Gustav and Anton’s middle age. What connects all three sections is love.

Tremain explores love in different forms: parent and child, friends, lovers, spouses, companions. What’s particularly interesting is the disparity between the picture Emilie paints of Erich and the revelation about his past behaviour. It raises questions about coping mechanisms for those who remain after someone close to them has died and very skilfully questions whether Erich’s heroism at helping Jews remain in Switzerland is compromised through his behaviour in his private life.

Some of the books on the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize have caused serious debate and disagreement between the shadow panel; The Gustav Sonata is one of those books – we’re absolutely split in terms of our opinions on it. For me, it never really came off the page. The issue here, I suspect, is mine: I’ve recently been reading and writing about women writing women and the number of books by women about women which go on to win major literary prizes. (See Nicola Griffith’s analysis of this.) I was frustrated then that this is largely a book about men; it would scrape through The Bechdel Test. It’s also a very measured book and I prefer something more high wire. For balance, therefore, I’ll direct you to my fellow shadow panel member, Eric, who had a very different reaction to me.

 

Thanks to Chatto and Windus for the review copy.

The Mare – Mary Gaitskill

Eleven-year-old Velvet takes part in the Fresh Air Fund summer scheme, two weeks staying ‘with rich white people’. She’s paired with forty-seven-year-old Ginger, an artist, married to a man she met in AA. The couple are considering adopting, although Ginger’s keener than Paul. Taking Velvet into their home is a trial to see what it’s like to have an older child around.

We called the organization and they sent us information, including a brochure of white kids and black kids holding flowers and smiling, of white adults hugging black kids and a slender black girl touching a white woolly sheep. It was sentimental and flattering to white vanity and manipulative as hell. It was also irresistible. It made you think the beautiful sentiments you pretend to believe in reality really might be true.

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Velvet soon becomes acquainted with the stables next door to Ginger’s house. There she takes a shine to Fugly Girl, the most dangerous horse in the yard. While there’s a clear parallel to be drawn between Fugly Girl’s behaviour and Velvet’s, the stable and Velvet’s subsequent ability as a rider is also used to highlight the difference in the attitudes of Ginger and Silvia, Velvet’s mother, to Velvet’s new hobby. Ginger is delighted and encourages Velvet, seeing it as a way to develop their relationship further, allowing Velvet to spend weekends with her and Paul. Silvia is adamant that Velvet can’t ride horses, she’s worried it’s too dangerous, a worry that both Ginger and Velvet ignore.

Silvia’s not the only person concerned, Paul also worries, but his fears are directed towards Ginger’s relationship with Velvet, to the need he sees in both of them, to the addiction that’s forming on Ginger’s side.

What Gaitskill does well with all of these elements is complicate them. Silvia appears to be a bad mother, she’s angry and abusive, belittling her daughter. But how much of what the reader understands about Silvia is lost in translation? She speaks Spanish and her words are almost always conveyed in English by her daughter, son or an independent translator. When Gaitskill does give us Silvia’s words directly, we see a woman worn down by her situation and a mother concerned about the effect Ginger’s influence is having on Velvet, about how it will prevent her fitting in to the community which she belongs.

Ginger also struggles to translate Velvet. She views her through a prism of idealism, even when there’s sufficient evidence to show Violet’s lying or being lazy or rude.

I was the adult. But I never knew from one moment to the next if I was or not. Being this kind of adult was like driving a car without breaks at night around hairpin turns. My body tensed and relaxed constantly. I was always nearly ruining dinner or forgetting to pick something up. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to drink – really wanted to, for the first time in years. Was this what parenting was like, 24/7? My God, how did anyone do it? How did her mother do it, in a foreign country, in a bad neighbourhood where she didn’t speak the language?

The novel is largely told from Velvet and Ginger’s first person perspectives, in short chapters which run immediately on from each other. Gaitskill uses the structure to support her theme of people being unknowable, making it all the more interesting when the occasional chapter from the perspective of Paul or Silvia or Dante, Velvet’s younger brother, comes along.

The Mare explores themes of motherhood, race, class, addiction, marriage and love. It asks whether it’s possible to offer someone a different kind of life and whether it’s the right thing to do. It’s gripping, challenging and provocative. A gem.

 

Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.

In the Media, March 2017, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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This fortnight’s seen a number of prize lists announced. The big ones for women writers are the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist and the Stella Prize shortlist.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments on trans women have prompted a number of responses.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso

Their rivalry was infamous enough for the other committee women to hang back and watch the show. It was known that the two women shared a hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino live in Katterijn, in the suburb of Constantia, Cape Town. Hortensia is the only black person living there. Her (white) husband, Peter, is dying. Their marriage long since descended into tolerance, Hortensia goes out walking, allowing her space to catch her breath and him the opportunity to take his last.

Marion lives next door. Both women are in their eighties and intolerant of each other.

‘So you see, Hortensia, this is not about your favourite topic, the race card. For once we’re on the same side.’ Marion’s smile looked set to burst and set the world alight.

‘Not so.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Not so, Marion. We are not on the same side. You should know this by now. Whatever you say, I disagree with. However you feel, I feel the opposite. At no point in anything are you and I on the same side. I don’t side with hypocrites.’

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Both women have problems they’re going to have to deal with: Marion’s husband spent all their money before he died. The debt collectors are close to taking their share but Marion has a painting she hasn’t declared and she needs somewhere to hide it. Would next door be the perfect place?

When Hortensia’s husband dies, a secret he’s been hiding for decades is revealed and Hortensia has to decide how she’s going to deal with it, what sort of person she wants to be.

Alongside both of these personal issues, the Katterijn committee discovers a land claim from a family called the Samsodiens, disenfranchised when the land Katterijn was eventually built on was given to a Dutch man, Von Struiker, who put a vineyard upon it. The claim puts their properties in jeopardy. The committee also receives a letter from a woman whose mother was a slave woman on the farm which stood where Hortensia’s house is now. She says the Silver Tree in Hortensia’s garden is where this woman’s children were buried and she wishes to be buried with them.

Omotoso takes the women’s stories both forwards and backwards; as events play out on the street, she fills in their backstories, showing the reader how they became the difficult, stubborn old women to whom we’ve been introduced. They have more in common than they’d like to believe, both successful in their own right before marriage and children or, in Hortensia’s case, the lack of them. Hortensia runs a highly successful haberdashery firm; Marion was an architect, ‘top of her class, a position she wrestled from a male student who not only found her presence in the school annoying, but her ambition and fierce competitiveness vulgar’.

This is where Marion’s real issues with Hortensia are revealed. Firstly, Marion’s racist; happy enough to hire a black maid but not to allow their children to play together or for any of them to use the same toilet. Secondly, the house Hortensia lives in was Marion’s first commission, the house she designed to her own spec, the house she put her heart into:

A house is a person, she’d argued, to the sound of guffaws from the rest of the class. But she’d pressed on and turned in her essay. What was house design if it wasn’t the study of armour, of disguises, of appearances? The most intimate form of space-making, the closest architects might ever come to portraiture.

By living in No. 10, Hortensia has pierced Marion’s armour, taken residency under her skin.

Omotoso looks at the trials life delivers these two women and how they shape the people they’ve become. Marriage, children, work, money, apartheid all play a part. For a book with a number of heavy themes, it’s very funny in parts; the two women play off each other, Omotoso making it clear at times that these women enjoy winding each other up, it’s something to do in their old age.

My only criticism of The Woman Next Door is that we’re given a little too much backstory. I would’ve preferred a little room to make my own connections between events, draw my own conclusions as to the effect events in the past had on the main characters. However, that doesn’t prevent the book from being an engaging read.

What particularly impressed me about The Woman Next Door was that it was about two elderly women – how often are they allowed to take centre stage? – who had forged big successful careers – one in a male dominated environment, who were allowed to be snarky and unpleasant. It’s everything we’re told the book industry won’t publish. Hurrah to Yewande Omotoso for writing it and to Chatto & Windus for publishing it. More, please.

 

Thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.