Swiss Sonata by Gwethalyn Graham ~ 1938. This edition: Cormorant Books, 2005. Introduction by Elspeth Cameron. Softcover. ISBN: 1-896951-62-7. 326 pages.
What an interesting book this turned out to be, and, after a somewhat uneven start, an absorbing story both for its historical value and for the small personal sagas of its invented characters.
I first became aware of author Gwethalyn Graham after reading Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson last year. That novel was all about anti-Semitism in American society in the immediate post-World War II years, and in looking into the background of that particular novel, I came across mention of a Canadian writer – Gwethalyn Graham – who wrote a well-received novel on a similar theme – 1944’s Earth and High Heaven.
“Well received”, you’ll note that I said. This is something of an understatement, as both Earth and High Heaven and Swiss Sonata won the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction – in 1938 and 1944 – a remarkable achievement for a writer’s first two (of only three) published works.
Looking into Gwethalyn Graham – see, this is how these things happen, wandering down each enticing literary rabbit trail! – I found mention of her first novel, published when she was 25 years old. Swiss Sonata was based on Graham’s personal experiences as a student at a Swiss “finishing school” in the 1930s, and it sounded like it might be an amusing read.
Which it turned out to be, in bits here and there, but its overwhelming concentration was on much darker world affairs affecting a group of schoolgirls – some, to be said, not exactly girls but in actuality young women – and their instructors, resident in a small Swiss boarding school in 1935.
Kirkus had this to say in its 1938 review, and I fully concur.
A first novel that is well handled and the story of a finishing school in Switzerland, whose pupils come from many countries. A miniature League of Nations, the problems current in 1935 are reflected in the school, pro-Hitlerite persecutes German-Jew, counter-revolutionary interests are hidden from the public eye. There are emotional, psychological problems, and the head-mistress is forced out of her ivory tower into active participation in the girls’ lives. Vicky, the heroine, is a bit too good to be true, but the story, after a slow start, does carry you along, interested in the outcome. A far-better-than-average girls’ school story.
Time presses, and I will leave you here, with these last few links well worth perusal.
Now interested in Gwethalyn Graham, and want to find out more? Here you go, a grand post on her increasingly tragic back story from the Only Connect blog.
And Brian Busby of The Dusty Bookcase blog, whose opinion on all things bookish I hold in the very highest regard, has this to say.
My personal “reading satisfaction” rating of Swiss Sonata: 7/10.
I liked it, and found its slight unevenness very forgivable. In some parts the emotional tension was exceedingly well sustained, and though I, like the Kirkus reviewer, found the heroine Vicky just a bit too good to be true, I eventually found myself completely won over. Interesting ending, too.
Highly recommended for its historical value, well presented hand-in-hand with its psychodrama fictional theme.