Monday, January 26, 2009

Review of Swiss Sonata by Gwethalyn Graham

Gwethalyn Graham's Swiss Sonata is an intriguing and well-written novel, which received the 1938 Governor-General's Award. It takes place over three days: Thursday January 10, 1935 to Saturday, January 11, 1935 in a Swiss finishing school for "girls" near Lausanne.

I put girls in quotes, because the age range is from the mid-teens to the mid 20's, although throughout the novel they are referred to as girls. To the audience of the 21st century, they are mostly young women. These women inhabit a bizarre, intermediary zone. They come from different countries and are away from their families, but for most of them, there is little inclination towards university or careers. They are adult women, and yet, they live in a girls' school. The bizarreness of this situation is emphasized during one scene in which the girls are forced to demonstrate to the teachers that they are wearing their wool underwear.

To me, the novel represents a transition to modernity. Though Graham has written her novel before the Second World War, the rampant nationalism and threat of fascism are omnipresent. Two characters in particular, Anna and Ilse are victims of the Nazis. Anna's father is trying to subvert the Nazi government, while Ilse is a Jew from the Saar. They both suffer persecution in the school at the hands of a clique of other Germans.

However, while nationalism is one theme, a nascent feminism is another. In particular, Graham focuses on the dual geographical and generational conflicts between the North American students and the European teachers. The novel is largely focused on Vicky Morrison, a young woman from Toronto with an uncanny skill for comforting others. Her best friend, Theodora Cohen, is an exaggerated spunky American Jew. While Ilse plays the role of victim, Theodora is aggressive in her behaviour. Meanwhile, Mary Ellerton, a young English women, who serves as the physical education teacher works as a bridge character between the generations and the continents. She manages to inhabit both the world of the students and the world of the teachers. Rather obviously, both in terms of age and origin, Mary Ellerton connects the traditional European teachers with Vicky and Theodora.

Mary Ellerton's important and clear role leads to one of my criticisms of the novel, namely, that Graham has a tendency to be heavy-handed. The young Torontonian up against the tradition of Europe, while simultaneously understanding that tradition, can be a bit much. Additionally, the end of the novel feels a bit rushed and unsatisfying. I feel that things are too well-resolved.

Overall, though, I would like to emphasize that this is a fine novel both in terms of literary merit and entertainment. Moreover, the prescient predictions and portrayal of a 1930s Swiss girls' boarding school make the novel very interesting in and of themselves. More importantly, Graham's depiction of the conflict between traditional and more modern views of gender roles is fascinating. Graham combines a great deal of thought with vivid characters.

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