In The Tristan Chord, Bettina von Kampen explores a very profound question: should one forget the great acts of a man because he has committed terrible ones?
The title may be misleading, because this book is not about music. It has a musical element and bandies about musical terms, sure, but music acts only as a plot device for telling this story. So if you aren't a musician, don't immediately shy away from this book because of what the title suggests.
I found the characters interesting and mostly very three-dimensional. Von Kampen depicts a very typical relationship between 41-year-old Robert and his mother, Johanna. Likewise, Johanna's feelings about her dead Nazi brother, Heinz, are conflicted. On one hand, Heinz eagerly joined the SS at seventeen, believed the propaganda, and killed Jews at Dachau. On the other hand, he possessed a musical genius and finished an opera that is an allegory for Germany's recovery after World War II. Which Heinz should Johanna remember?
Von Kampen's story pulled me and made me want to keep reading, which is something I can't say for a lot of books I read. The Tristan Chord takes place in two periods, but von Kampen moves between them seamlessly, and the transitions never feel clunky or unwelcome. Johanna acts as a bridge figure between these two eras; we get to see her as both a young girl and an older, more experienced woman.
I could have done without the character of Marcelline, who seems superfluous. She seems to exist purely to flirt with Robert, and her character never gets a backstory or any development beyond the sketchiest of details--I feel kind of sorry for her!
I picked this book up on a whim. I doubt I'll ever pick it up again--it's not that kind of book. It was OK, and the motifs and themes were much deeper than I expected. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised.