It’s no secret here at The Masters Review that we’re big fans of Tin House. So when I received my copy of Us Conductors, the debut novel by Montreal-based writer and music critic Sean Michaels, I had high expectations. Thankfully, this dense, yet lyrical novel, delivered in spades.
Us Conductors follows the path of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the brilliant engineer who invented the theremin. While the book is a work of fiction, Termen and the theremin are not. If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing or hearing a theremin (it is no longer a common instrument), you’re missing out on a singular experience. Controlled by electrical current, the musician plays the theremin without touch, controlling pitch and volume with each hand.
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This haunting and plaintive music is the soundtrack to which Us Conductors is set. Lev, a dedicated scientist, is sent to America as a Russian spy after inventing his marvelous instrument. He is instructed to use the theremin to wend his way into meeting people and making deals that would prove difficult otherwise. However, Lev (or Leon, as he is called in America), is not much of a spy. He delights in creating new inventions and discussing theory with foreign scientists, but leaves the subterfuge up to his handler. Leon’s chief joy, other than science, is an American violinist named Clara Reisenberg. Their love affair is intense, buoyed by Harlem dance halls and the ethereal song of the theremin.
The narrative spans decades, progressing from Prohibition, to the 1929 Crash, to an increasingly dangerous Russia. Leon is obligated to become increasingly involved in the spy game, and must make harder and harder decisions about what kind of person he will turn out to be. Despite all this, he builds a home in America, gathering friends and students, hosting raucous parties, and inventing more amazing machines. However, when his situation in the United States becomes untenable, he is forced to return to Russia, a country he no longer recognizes. What follows is simply a struggle for survival.
Us Conductors is a literary novel that spans genre. It is definitely an engrossing work of historical fiction; the reader gets an intimate view of one of the most tumultuous and intriguing times in recent history, through the lens of a man who saw a large deal of it, good and bad. It is also a musical novel, which is apt for its author. The musicality and lyricism of the sentences are mirrored by the music within the novel, almost adding another character. However, by the end of the book, it feels the most like a love story. Throughout the novel, Leon’s love for Clara rings true and unfailing, binding his life to hers, however tenuously at times. It is this thread the holds Leon together, and therefore holds the book together as well.
A pleasure to read and an impressive debut, Us Conductors is a prize of a book, and I would highly recommend it.
Reviewed by Arielle Yarwood