I don’t intend to do much prize-shadowing this year. I intend to continue with my #gapyeartravel reading. But when I saw the shortlist for the Costa Novel award (to be awarded later today) and realised I’d read most of it, what could I do but complete it and determine which novel would win, were I the sole judge?
If the usual rules hold true, the actual prize will probably go to the one I liked least. Well, that would be Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which I could not finish. It took far too long to slither anywhere, so at the half-way point I slithered elsewhere. I would, however, award the physical object, Dust Jacket of the Year. What a beauty!
Reading my review of O’Farrell’s This Must Be The Place, I find I wasn’t dazzled by it either, though memory tells me that I enjoyed it more than my review would suggest. Still I’m not going to overrule myself six months later.
Which leaves me to choose between Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End and Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. What a contest! Both authors have won the Costa Novel Award previously with Barry’s The Secret Scripture going on to take the overall Book of The Year Award in 2008. That suggests that the competition for Lizzy’s award is going to be a close-run thing. And it is. My decision will be reached as I write this post!
Let’s take them in alphabetical sequence.
Who would have expected Sebastian Barry to have written a Western? Not me, for sure and so finding myself transported back to the Wild West was the biggest surprise on the shortlist for me. Barry is known for mining his family’s history, and so Thomas McNulty, the great-uncle who was involved in the Indian wars, makes his appearance in Days Without End. Not much more is known about the real Thomas, so his tale of gradual transformation from Thomas to Thomasina, and his relationship with John Cole, is entirely fictional, written as a sympathetic response to the coming out of the author’s son.
The historical backdrop, however is anything but fictional, and Barry’s exploration of that ugly time is brutal and unflinching. Thomas and John find themselves fighting in both the Indian Wars and the American Civil War. Terms of engagement were different back then, and war crimes were frequent. Barry not afraid to show them. He also demonstrates where the white man could learn from the Native Indians in terms of generosity, compassion and a fluid understanding of gender issues.
Indeed it is the existence of the 19th century Native two spirits that lends credibility to the development of Thomasina. Yet Barry pushes the plot too far in defence of a 21st century agenda – same sex marriage, adoption by gay couples, opening himself up to a justified charge of anachronism.
That said, Barry’s prose is in a class of its own. In places, rough around the edges – Thomas isn’t an educated man; his narrative is at times matter-of-fact, at others full of unsentimental heartfelt emotion that brought tears to my eyes. Descriptions of landscape that you can smell and touch. Battles are related with an immediacy that have the reader standing sabre to sabre with him. Simply breathtaking.
And so to The Gustav Sonata and perhaps the saddest character in the quartet of shortlisted novels.
Not that Gustav Perle realises his own sadness. He suppresses it along with other needs contenting himself to empathise and cater for others. It’s a pattern established from an early age by his widowed mother, embittered by the outcome of her marriage and the poverty of her widowhood, and his rich, Jewish and talented school friend, Anton Zwiebel, who wishes to become a concert pianist but is too highly-strung to perform well under pressure. In adulthood the pattern continues with Gustav becoming a hotellier, always catering for his guests, rather than developing a meaningful relationship of his own. It’s not until late-middle age that Gustav finds a happy ending and becomes the person he always should have been. A bit of a spoiler there, but I was so happy for him. Never has a fictional character deserved it more.
A sonata is a musical structure consisting of three main movements: exposition, development and recapitulation. Tremain structures her novel thus. The first section describes Gustav’s childhood in Matzlingen, Switzerland. The second explains his mother’s embitterment, and, while it does nothing to endear her to the reader, it does explain why she impresses on Gustav the need “to be like Switzerland. You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then, you will have the right kind of life.” The third section repeats many of the rifts of the previous sections though in different chords: the story of Gustav’s father’s heroism in helping refugee Jews from the viewpoint of his lover, Gustav’s continuing generosity to those who need his emotional support, and, finally the recognition of his own nature with some payback from those who have previously taken so much from him.
This is a very smooth and, in places, subtle read. Tremain infers, frequently through repeated motifs, many drawn from the life and literature of Thomas Mann, who spent many years in exile in Switzerland on account of his Jewish wife. In addition, the novel taught me things about Swiss history that I did not know.
Can I fault it in anyway? Only in so far as the names of the main characters might be a subtlety too far. An English reader would naturally not pronounce the final syllable of Gustav’s surname and would read it as Pearl. He is, of course, an absolute gem. Anton’s surname means Onion. Correspondingly he is the cause of many tears and sorrows.
It’s a minor quibble, and certainly doesn’t stretch my credibility as far as some elements of Barry’s novel. I’m sorry for that because Days Without End is the novel that bedazzled me while reading. The Gustav Sonata grew on me while reviewing. I think that its hidden depths will better reward further readings. This last consideration tips the balance in Tremain’s favour. She would be the Costa 2016 novel winner if I were making the announcement tonight.