While locked in a room on a cargo ship journeying from America to Russia, Lev Termen, Russian scientist, inventor, and spy, writes a letter to the love of his life, Clara Rockmore. Lev, the inventor of the theremin, is telling his life story to Clara, the finest theremin player in the world. The two would never end up together, but Lev’s love for Clara would never die.
Through this letter, we learn of Lev’s early days as a scientist during the Bolshevik Revolution and the invention of the theremin, the musical instrument which would eventually take him to America in the 1930’s where he would ultimately help Russia spy on the US. But life after he writes his letter to Clara takes an unfortunate turn.
When Lev returns to Russia he is imprisoned in a Siberian gulag. There he toils in harsh conditions doing difficult labour but his background and initiative help to turn things around. Eventually he finds himself spying on Stalin, the man who gave him so much opportunity in the early years of his life.
Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels, is an incredible and beautiful novel about love and heartbreak, determination and consolation. This is a book that I could not put down. Michaels is a music critic and founder of one of the earliest music blogs. He has written mostly non-fiction and short stories, and this is his first novel. And what a way to introduce yourself.
This book is one of my favourites to come out of the Giller Prize nominations this year. Based on real people and real events, this book is an inspired story of love. It is definitely not a completely true story, Michaels admits this much in his Author’s Note where he shares that the book is “full of distortions, elisions, omissions, and lies.” Turns out Termen wasn’t a murderer or a kung-fu expert. However, none of this ruins the story, it never makes it seem as outrageous as it appears that Termen’s real life was already that way. No matter what is true or fiction, everything blends well in this book for a truly satisfying read.
My initial thought when I picked up this book (and I really only picked it up because of its Giller nomination) was, am I really going to find a book about the man who invented the theremin interesting? If you have those thoughts, throw them away now. The man in this novel lives the lives of many men, it’s hard to imagine all of this happening to one person. But Michaels writes with such beauty and strength, that even in the difficult times (the Siberian gulag for instance), you aren’t full of sadness but hope.
A stunning debut novel, I look forward to what else Michaels will bring us. I can only imagine how much time he spent in the life of Dr. Termen, and it was well worth it.