Sean Michaels’ debut novel has already won Canada’s 2014 Scotiabank Giller prize and deservedly so. It is a fictionalised account of the life of Lev Termin, better known in the West as Leon Theremin, Russian scientist and inventor, most famously of the electronic instrument that bears his name. The novel takes the form of a yearning, searching love letter to Clara Rockmore, Lev’s “one true love”. It ranges from his life in Petrograd (St Petersburg) as a young man meeting his hero Lenin, through his adventures in New York during the roaring twenties as a celebrity inventor and Russian spy, and back to Stalin’s USSR and a Siberian gulag.
Lev is an intriguing character – at times weak, self-obsessed and delusional, yet compelling nonetheless. His naiveté in both his professional and personal life engages the reader’s empathy, and his love for Clara is heartfelt without being sentimental. The passages describing the journey to and life in the gulag are exceptional, describing not only their horrors with dreadful exactitude but also Lev’s bewilderment at finding himself in such a reality. As a result, this is a novel of great contrasts: light and dark, hope and despair, love and illusion. Michaels’ prose is beautiful in its restraint, as pure and otherworldly as the sound of the theremin he seeks to invoke.
Despite the beauty of the writing, the plot does slightly peter out towards the end, and the author tells us that there are a number of inventions within the storyline (including, for instance, a fictional murder), which seems a shame when Theremin’s life contains so much incident without the need for further embellishment. This novel is not without its flaws, therefore, but notwithstanding them, this is a beautiful, well-crafted and wide-ranging novel. It’s a highly enjoyable read – very much recommended.