Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors is a novel about the ways in which humans are able to connect with one another. It takes us through the life of the Russian scientist Leon Termen, chronicling his time in gaudy New York dance halls of the roaring twenties to the despair of a Soviet prison camp.
The story begins with Leon locked in the hold of a ship. We are then taken back in time to understand his early studies in Leningrad where he becomes a celebrated inventor, and then his journey to the United States, where he showcases his inventions while opening up opportunities for Soviet infiltration of American secrets. The book follows his life in New York and then his return to Russia, where he ends up in a Soviet prison camp.
The novel is carefully crafted and engaging from the very beginning. It is a love story that centres on the connections between science and music. The discussions on art are handled with delicacy and never overdone, and the scientific and technical descriptions are easily understandable by the reader.
Though the novel is based on history, the story is not driven by it – as the epigraph states, the book is “mostly inventions.” Leon is a man who is propelled through life by his desire for creating music and furthering his scientific inventions. The story is based around his love for a woman, Clara, a musician who has a beautiful ability to play the violin and his invention, the theremin. He is a scientist who is unable to neglect his crafts; he even innovates work routines and organizes concerts while in a labour camp. He is understandable though not always likable, living for what he finds interesting, paying attention to the things that are important to his inventions. Other characters are shown mostly in snapshots and can be difficult to fully comprehend, which serves as a reflection of Leon’s own inability to fully grasp the people around him.
The book takes readers to extremes, contrasting the opulence of life in 1920s New York with the horrors of a prison camp. It pushes forward at a steady pace, though also employs flash-forwards that provide glimpses into Leon’s present situation. Though these sections give the reader an interesting perspective, after a while they can become repetitive, as mostly they do not convey new information and only seem to appear to remind the reader where the story is headed. These flash-forward sections would be more significant if they offered greater insight into the story or Leon’s character.
The novel is written as a letter to Clara, and though we understand that she is the force that drives Leon’s life, it is not entirely clear why the character choses to detail his story for her. Though sometimes it makes sense for him to be writing to Clara, other times it comes across as forced, as if it serves as merely a reminder that we are reading her letter. This technique does emphasize the love story, but this storyline would likely have been strong enough to sustain itself.
It is, in fact, the storyline that sets this novel apart. The story moves with a driving force that makes it difficult to put down, and this pace often gives the reader a chance to piece things together for themselves. It is a book that is many things: a spy thriller, a study of electricity, a love story. Throughout it all, though, is the basic need of an inventor to invent, the need of a musician to make music, the need of human beings to leave their mark on the world. It’s about how we find ways to come back to the things and people who give meaning to our lives. Otherwise, we would have nothing.
Us Conductors is published by Random House Canada and won the 2014 Giller Prize.