By: Sean Michaels
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase
Us Conductors takes us from the glamour of Jazz Age New York to the gulags and science prisons of the Soviet Union. On 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.
This book won the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. I had been meaning to pick up a copy to read it after hearing great things about it but made the mistake of not picking it up last Christmas when it was on sale because you couldn’t find a paperback copy of it anywhere afterwards. Luckily the eBook went on sale on Canada Day so hee hee, finally got my hands on it 😀 Seemed timely to read it when I did as the Giller Prize longlist for 2015 was to be released then.
Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would. Which is too bad because the premise of the story was interesting enough, covering such a span of history and events in the early twentieth century, not to mention Lev’s life–based on an actual person–is ripe for a fictional tale. I did feel for Lev and the times that he found himself in; all he wanted to do was to observe and create, to follow his goals and passions as a scientist, and instead is caught up unwittingly in the politics of the Soviet Union and the changing times. I was freaking out for his especially around 1937/1938 given it was the height of the Great Terror; naturally it was the height and towards the end of the Stalinist era that would see him back at a Siberian gulag.
So as interesting as the premise was and caring about what happens to the main character, the execution of the narrative left for something wanting. The writing wasn’t horrid or anything, but it wasn’t terribly compelling either. I liked how the story was presented as a letter to the love of his life, but I don’t know if it’s the fact that so much was crammed into this rather slim novel or the time jumps or just narrative that seemed off-putting. Not to mention I didn’t really get a sense of the other characters, they were just there. Only Lev’s voice as a character felt fully-fleshed out, which made sense since he’s the one narrating the story. Oh, and I found Clara immensely annoying and could see how things were going to work out for the two of them a kilometre away.
So overall I didn’t find Us Conductors as amazing as I thought it would be. There were a few good lines here and there and the premise and subject matter that this book covered was interesting enough but the story itself fell rather flat IMO.