Title: Us Conductors
Author: Sean Michaels
Publisher: Random House of Canada
Publication Date: January 1, 2015
Synopsis from Goodreads:
In a ship steaming its way from Manhattan back to Leningrad, Lev Termen writes a letter to his “one true love”, Clara Rockmore, telling her the story of his life. Imprisoned in his cabin, he recalls his early years as a scientist, inventing the theremin and other electric marvels, and the Kremlin’s dream that these inventions could be used to infiltrate capitalism itself. Instead, New York infiltrated Termen – he fell in love with the city’s dance clubs and speakeasies, with the students learning his strange instrument, and with Clara, a beautiful young violinist. Amid ghostly sonatas, kung-fu tussles, brushes with Chaplin and Rockefeller, a mission to Alcatraz, the novel builds to a crescendo: Termen’s spy games fall apart and he is forced to return home, where he’s soon consigned to a Siberian gulag. Only his wits can save him, but they will also plunge him even deeper toward the dark heart of Stalin’s Russia.
Before reading this book, I’d never heard of the theremin, but after reading it and conducting research on YouTube, I feel much more knowledgable about this strange and unusual instrument. This story is about the inventor, Lev Termen, his experiences in New York as a spy for the USSR, and his return to Russia as a convicted criminal. What I love about this story is that it portrays an eeriness that reflect the strange sounds of his invention. It’s got this air of mystery and intrigued coupled with a sense of romance and even danger. Teremin himself is a very interesting man, obsessed with circuits and music, practitioner of kung-fu, music teach, romantic, agent for his homeland. He is a man of many facets.
Michaels’ prose is sweeping and beautiful. He constructs a detailed, historical world bringing this moment in time to life. Teremin is the most real character in the book and is the easiest to fully understand, as the novel is told from his perspective. The other characters are all perceived through his point of view and understanding so we don’t get to know them as well. Each relationship is defined and described by Teremin, which gives the whole book a very autobiographical feel to it as Teremin narrates his experiences.
I really liked the end portion of the book the best. The setting changes to Stalin’s Russia and it’s in this section that I felt like the book really came alive. It’s the most visceral part of the book. The gulags are dark and dangerous. Death is imminent and Teremin is living moment to moment. The glitz of Jazz Age New York is gone and is replaced with cold and darkness.
I do struggle a little bit to understand how Us Conductors beat out Canadian greats like Heather O’Neill and Miriam Toews as the winner of the 2014 Giller Prize, as I don’t think that the writing in this book is as strong. But it’s still an excellent and incredibly interesting read.