by Sean Michaels
It feels like I’ve recently been struggling quite a bit to write my reviews, but usually that has something to do with getting to the heart of what I feel about the books I’m reading and why. Oftentimes, I’ll have difficulties when there are objective problems with a story, but I still enjoyed myself throughout, as was the case with The Murder on the Orient Express. Other times, I may dislike a book overall, but I don’t want to come across as a dick by pooping all over it, so I spend a great deal of time focusing on as many positives as I can find and dancing around the issue at hand. It’s also happened with books that I loved, like Brideshead Revisited, where I experienced a deep, visceral enjoyment, but I struggled to identify the why. If I go through a long enough spurt of these difficulties, I start to wonder if I’m just not cut out for this whole reviewing thing, but then something comes along that I have a very clear opinion of and the effective aspects of the writing are readily identifiable, and the review basically writes itself. Us Conductors happens to be one of those books.
Framed as a series of letters written to Clara, the woman he loves, Us Conductors is a fictional account of Lev Termen, inventor of the theremin, as he travels to the United States in the 1930s to tour the country, performing classical music with his invention, while acting as a Bolshevik spy, as well as his time spent in the Gulag upon his return to Russia. The three things that stand out in Michaels’ story are how real Termen’s world feels, how real his love seems, and how his descriptions of music seem almost palpable. Part of this stems from the use of rich imagery and metaphors, especially where the music is concerned, but the detailed descriptions in the writing also greatly add to this effectiveness. Termen often recollects little details connected to his memories, but the tiniest, almost imperceptible ones often concern the memories connected to Clara, giving this adoration credence, rather than just being something that we assume to be true because the author tells us he’s in love. And I was greatly impressed with how deep Michaels delved with these descriptions. He wouldn’t just describe someone laughing or grinning; he’d get into further details behind the laugh or the grin, that the laugh was accompanied with squinting, unsure eyes, or that the grin somehow didn’t seem genuine until the grinner’s eyes suddenly lit up. I can’t count the number of times I had to put the book down just to reflect on what I just read, on how such a large number of passages struck me firmly due to this careful writing style.
Even without these unique details in Michaels’ style, Us Conductors would be an interesting story about love, music, and espionage, but the superb writing turns it into something special.