Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Russia, Sean Michaels, Setting, Tin House Books

‘Us Conductors’ by Sean Michaels

Us-Conductors

Fiction – paperback; Tin House Books; 459 pages; 2014.

Sean Michaels’ debut novel, Us Conductors, is a fictionalised account of the life of Russian engineer and physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (1896-1993) — later known as Leon Theremin — who invented the electronic musical instrument that takes his name: the theremin*. After living in the US for many years, he was repatriated to Russia and imprisoned in a gulag, where he worked in a secret laboratory inventing devices for Soviet espionage.

A book featuring a scientist as the lead character may sound like a strange concept, but it works extraordinarily well, probably because Michaels gives Dr Theremin such a compelling voice — part arrogant, part naive, often bewildered and constantly lovelorn — and adds a few fictionalised elements to his character — he practices kung fu, for instance — which gives the story an almost surreal quality.

I’m going to be completely up front and stake my colours to the mast, or the flag to the pole, or whatever that saying is and confess that this is my favourite novel on this year’s Giller Prize shortlist. It’s the kind of book that takes you on an adventure and is told in such a refreshingly intimate way that I felt slightly bereft when I finished the book (about a month ago) because I did not want the journey to end. And ever since, I’ve been thinking about Lev/Leon and marvelling at his extraordinary life.

A confession at sea

The book opens with Leon onboard a ship “plunging from New York back to Russia” .

But the door to my cabin is locked. I do not have the key.  Just a typewriter, just paper and ink, just this story to set down in solitude, as the distance widens between us.

This story is essentially a love letter to a young American musician called Clara —”the finest theremin player the world will ever know” — who has spurned Leon’s advances and married someone else.

His tale is divided into two main sections: his life in the US, where he pursues the idea of mass producing the theremin so that every home has one; and his life back in Russia, sent to a gulag for the rest of his life for a reason that is never quite made clear. But the one constant in his life is his unrequited love for Clara, which thrums like a theremin throughout.

Admittedly, the first section, set in glitzy Manhattan during Prohibition, is far more exciting than the second, but each informs the other, because it allows us to experience both Leon’s (almost spectacular) success followed by his dramatic fall from grace. Once courted by the rich and famous, showcasing his invention in Carnegie Hall and performing with the New York Philharmonic orchestra, and hanging out with the likes of Einstein, his life takes an unexpected twist when: (1) he finds out he hasn’t paid his taxes in six years and is going to become bankrupt; and (2) he’s coerced into becoming a Soviet spy, informing on people and institutions he appears to know little about.

A compelling voice

What makes this story so interesting is something I mentioned earlier: Leon’s voice.

It’s not that his voice is unreliable, but when he becomes a spy it’s hard to determine to what extent this is deliberate or accidental — we can never be 100 per cent certain that he is telling us everything he knows. Is he being economical with the truth, is he merely naive or has he become caught up in events his scientifically minded brain can’t comprehend?

At times he seems alarmingly trusting  — for instance, he leaves all his business decisions to a man he knows little about and then seems unfazed when he’s barely got a dime to rub together. But just when you have Leon pegged as being a passive character, he does something completely left of field (I can’t reveal it here, because it’s a bit of a plot spoiler) and you realise you should never under-estimate him.

This is what makes Us Conductors such an intriguing read. But it’s also an intriguing read because it’s so ambitious in scope and theme. It’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun.

UPDATE — SUNDAY 9 NOVEMBER 2014 : The Shadow Giller Prize jury has chosen Us Conductors as our winner. You can find out more via the official announcement on KevinfromCanada’s blog.

Giller_Winner

UPDATE — TUESDAY 11 NOVEMBER 2014: The REAL Giller Prize has also chosen Us Conductors as its winner! How wonderful! You can find out more via the official announcement on the Giller Prize website.

* You can see a clip of  Leon Theremin playing the theremin on YouTube. Brits of a certain age may be more familiar with musician John Otway playing the instrument.

Author, Book review, David Bezmozgis, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Russia, Setting, Viking

‘The Betrayers’ by David Bezmozgis

The Betrayers

Fiction – Kindle edition; Viking; 240 pages; 2014.

David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. It’s not the first time he’s made the cut — his first novel, The Free World, was shortlisted in 2011.

This new book is also focussed on Russian Jews but is vastly different. Set in current times, and spanning just 24 hours, it focuses on two aged men — a Russian dissident turned Israeli politician, who is embroiled in a sex scandal, and a 70-year-old Soviet exile, who is in poor health and struggling to make ends meet — whose paths cross in Yalta, a holiday resort on the Crimean peninsula.

The book is divided into four main parts — the first focuses on the politician, Baruch Kotler; the second on Vladimir Tankilevich, the Jew who informed on Kotler 40 years earlier; the third on their reunion;  and the fourth on the outfall of their meeting.

Soviet dissident meets Soviet informer

In a nutshell, the story goes something like this: in his role as a cabinet minister, Kotler has taken a stand against the destruction of West Bank settlements and has refused to be blackmailed into keeping quiet. As a result, photographs of him in a compromising position with his young assistant, Leora, have been published in the papers. Kotler and Leora decide to lay low by taking a short vacation in the Crimea, where they rent a room from a Russian woman. By coincidence, it turns out that the Russian woman is married to Tankilevich. The two men meet, have a long conversation about their past, and then Kotler and Leora return home to face the consequences of their actions.

Of course, it would spoil things to outline the detail of the conversation between Kotler and Tankilevich, which makes up the bulk of the book, but suffice to say it largely fleshes out the novel’s theme, which — as the title would suggest — is very much focussed on betrayal and its long-lasting repercussions. This betrayal is not only between the two men at the heart of the story, but also on other characters, including Kotler’s betrayal of his longstanding wife Miriam (by taking up with Leora) and Leora’s betrayal of  Kotler’s daughter, Dafna, with whom she is very good friends ( by taking up with her father).

It could even be argued that it is the fear of betrayal that forces Kotler’s son, a solider in the Israeli Army, to ignore his superiors by refusing to take part in the destruction of the Jewish settlements — even if he has to injure himself so that he is unable to do so.

Politics and humour

While The Betrayers deals with many heavy themes — including political oppression and the ways in which Soviet Russia manipulated its own citizens to turn against one another — Bezmozgis uses wry humour to lighten the load. For instance, early on in the novel, Kotler is very much aware that his relationship with Leora is preposterous given the difference in their age — and he knows this fact hasn’t been lost on the hotel receptionist who turns them away on the basis she can’t find their booking:

Perhaps someone could think, considering them, that here was a dutiful daughter vacationing with her father. But wasn’t that yet another of the changes, the increased number of daughters and fathers who seemed to be vacationing together?

And later:

What a picture they made, he thought. This voluptuous, serious, dark-haired girl with her head on the shoulder of a pot-bellied little man still wearing his sunglasses and Borsalino hat. Fodder for comedy.

Fast-paced “spy novel”

Admittedly, I have an aversion to novels that are focused on political betrayal (I’m not a fan of Cold War novels, for instance), but there was a lot I liked about this one. It’s fast-paced, too, and can be easily read in a day or two.

The male characters are well drawn (the females less so) and the dialogue is very good — short, sharp and punchy — enough to suggest it would make a terrific screenplay. That’s not to say Bezmozgis is light on detail, because he’s not — his descriptions of Yalta are particularly vivid and even the way he describes the inner life of Tankilevich, forced to beg the Jewish charity in Simferopol to extend his 10-year stipend, has a ring of authenticity to it.

But, on the whole, The Betrayers feels very much a “male book”, which may not bode well for winning a major literary prize like the 2014 Giller Prize, which will be announced in a week’s time (10 November).

For another take on this novel, please see KevinfromCanada’s review.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Frances Itani, Harper Collins, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Tell’ by Frances Itani

Tell

Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 321 pages; 2014.

The aftermath of the Great War on the residents of a small village in Canada is the subject of France’s Itani’s latest novel, Tell, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

I read it back-to-back with William Trevor’s Love and Summer, and couldn’t help but see the similarities between them. Both are gentle, comforting, slow-paced reads, about people quietly getting on with their lives in a small, close-knit community.  Indeed, in KevinfromCanada’s review of Tell, he suggests the book is a Canadian version of the Irish village novel in which  “a collection of ordinary people try to deal with life, even if they have been touched by extraordinary events like war”.

Perhaps the only major difference — aside from setting and era — is that Itani’s book has a slightly more complicated structure, because it interleaves two main narrative threads instead of focusing on  just a single story.

Small-town life

Tell spans just a couple of months — November 1919 to January 1920 — and is set in Deseronto, a small town in Ontario on the edge of a bay.

Here, we meet Kenan, a young shell-shocked soldier, who has returned from the war badly injured. He has a dead arm, has lost the sight in one eye and his face is terribly disfigured. He is too traumatised to leave the house, despite this wife, Tress, offering as much support and comfort as she can muster. The book follows their individual struggles to keep their marriage alive despite the fact that the war has changed both of them — physically and psychologically — forever.

The  second storyline focuses on Kenan’s aunt and uncle, who also live in the village. Am and Maggie have been married for a long time, but their relationship has “stalled” in the sense that they barely have a thing to say to one another. Am seeks solace in his work maintaining the village clock tower and keeping his nephew company, while Maggie spends time with her new friends — an outgoing woman called Zel, and an Eastern European refugee called Luc — both of whom she met through the village choir. It is her relationship with choir master Luc, in particular, which threatens to destroy the fragile state of her marriage.

Family connections

While these two storylines are distinct, they are not separate. Itani fleshes out the relationships and links between the two couples to create a sense of family and shared history, almost as if they represent a microcosm of the village itself.

Not much happens plot wise except to move towards the choir’s annual New Year’s Eve concert, although even that is not the real climax of the novel, which ends with a revelation about a secret long-held by Am and Maggie. But the novel works in terms of the well-drawn characters, for it is their quiet conversations, their actions, the roles they play in village life and their interactions with each other that gives the reader a reason to keep turning the pages.

Sometimes, however, I felt the music element of the novel — the choir’s rehearsals and the performance itself — were slightly overworked, although I did enjoy the way in which Maggie’s rediscovery of her love for music helped her reconnect with emotions she had buried long ago. Her chance encounter with opera singer Dame Nellie Melba in Toronto before the war is beautifully drawn, if not quite believable.

I also struggled with the revelations at the end. While heartbreaking, they bordered on a sentimentality that seemed at odds with the rest of the novel. But these are minor quibbles.

Tell is a lovely, quietly devastating book that focuses on small moments but never loses sight of the bigger picture: that we must all take responsibility for our actions; that life, despite its many challenges, heartaches and sorrows, is what we make of it; and that failing to deal with the past can sometimes come back to haunt us in unforeseen and tragic ways.

I read this book as part of the Shadow Giller Prize. It is currently only available in Canada but will be published in the UK on 6 January, 2015.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Padma Viswanathan, Penguin Canada, Publisher, Setting

‘The Ever After of Ashwin Rao’ by Padma Viswanathan

Ever After of Ashwin Rao

Fiction – hardcover; Penguin Canada; 374 pages; 2014.

Padma Viswanathan’s second novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. The Ashwin Rao of the title is an Indian psychologist who returns to Canada — where he trained — to do a “study of comparative grief”.

His subjects are the family members who survived a terrorist attack in which Air India flight 182 was bombed over the Atlantic en route from Montreal to Delhi, via London Heathrow, in 1985. More than 300 people were killed — mainly Canadian citizens — but the case was not brought to trial until 2004, the year in which the book is set. (As an aside, you can read more about the incident on Wikipedia.)

Rao wants to find out how these people coped — “by what means did they go on?” — but his study is not exactly objective. He, too, lost family members in the tragedy — his sister and her two children — but he’s not always forthcoming about this, because he wants to keep his “professional distance”. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that in examining other people’s grief he is essentially exploring his own — even if he might not know it.

Survivors of a terrorist bomb

The novel, which spans summer 2004 to spring 2005, is structured around Rao’s interviews with survivors. Their individual stories — how their loved ones came to be on the flight, how they coped in the aftermath of the tragedy, what their lives have involved in the 18 years since — are “imagined” using a psychological technique Rao has been practising for his entire professional career.

This technique stems from his compulsive journal keeping, something that he has been doing since childhood:

But I keep a journal differently. I note, on a left-hand page, an anecdote — something characteristic or outrageous a friend or family member said, or perhaps a confidence told to me. On the facing page, for as many pages as it takes, I properly tell the story: third-person, quasi-fictionalised, including matters not witnessed, details I can’t really know, and so try to explain what I have seen or heard.

These stories are mostly unbearably sad but are lightened by a wry sense of humour. They are interleaved with Rao’s own story — his life in India rife with political and religious tension, the freedom he discovered in Canada when he arrived in 1969 to study medicine, the love affair he had with a Canadian woman who went on to marry someone else — in a voice that is distinctive, self-deprecating, occasionally angry, often melancholy, opinionated, philosophical and a little old-fashioned.

Unfortunately, Rao’s voice eventually gets subsumed by a larger story — that of Professor Sethuratnam, his daughter Brinda and his cousin Venkataraman, whose wife and son were killed in the tragedy — which comes to a rather unexpected and somewhat unbelievable conclusion.

While The Ever After of Ashwin Rao has worthy aims — to explore the notion of grief, to look at the long-lasting repercussions of terrorism, to examine multiculturalism and religion — the execution is confused and the narrative occasionally lacks focus. This is not to say it is a bad book — it’s far from that, as its prize listing would suggest — but it demands the reader’s full attention without necessarily offering much of a reward. Admittedly, I only continued reading it as part of my Shadow Giller jury obligations — I fear I may have abandoned it otherwise.

Author, Biblioasis, Book review, Fiction, Kathy Page, Publisher, short stories

‘Paradise & Elsewhere’ by Kathy Page

Paradise-and-elsewhere

Fiction – Kindle edition; Biblioasis; 158 pages; 2014.

Kathy Page’s extraordinary short story collection Paradise & Elsewhere has been long listed for this year’s Giller Prize. I say “extraordinary” because it’s the best word I could come up with to describe the book in its entirety. Each of the 14 stories within it are magical little portholes into other worlds, or, as the author puts it herself (in the Acknowledgements), “explorations into the hinterland between realism and myth”.

Indeed, reading many of these stories is a slightly dislocating experience. That’s because the places in which Page sets them feel real and recognisable — deserts, rural communities, suburbia, to name but a few — and yet somewhere at the mid-way point of each story, or near the end, she drops in a little detail that makes you realise these are not places you’ve ever been — or are likely to want to visit.

Some are set now, others in the future after an unexplained and presumably catastrophic event has changed civilisation in subtle but oh-so important ways.

Dark tales

There’s definitely an undercurrent of menace in many of these tales. People are never to be taken on face value, never to be trusted, because underneath they’ve all got their own private, self-interested agendas. Many characters are manipulative, dark and dangerous. Others are weak and naive — and are always taken advantage of.

This all adds up to some pretty edgy and deeply disturbing short stories, I must say, but Page reigns it in beautifully. There’s no pyrotechnics or melodrama, although the climax of each story is often surprising or unexpected. The writing is restrained throughout; there’s almost a journalistic quality to it and I was often reminded of the very best kind of travel reportage that not only transports you to foreign climes but describes the culture, the food, the people and tries to put it into context.

Some tales also read as fables — not dull, overly simplistic, fables, but ones with dark moral messages at the core reminiscent of British writer Magnus Mills.

Trouble in paradise

As an example, one of the early stories in the collection (and possibly my favourite), Of Paradise, explores what it is to accept new people into our communities. It is set in an oasis — the paradise of the title — in the middle of the desert where a relatively peaceful community has been living in seclusion for a very long time. One day a distressed person arrives, “dragging itself towards us across sand and rock”, and she is given water, food and shelter. While the community nurses “the traveller” to good health they fall a little bit in love with her, but when she is fully recovered opinion is divided about what to do with her:

I said that she must be taught our language. Then she could decide whether she would stay or not, and if so she would have to be told our methods of cultivation and given a home and responsibilities. Others agreed that she should learn how to speak to us, but only so that we could find out where she had come from and send her back to it; there were limits to hospitality. However well-taught and well-loved she was, these people said, she would always feel slightly apart from us who had always been here.

The community becomes increasingly afraid of the stranger in their midst and want to cast her out, not least because they feel she is a burden they can no longer support.

The traveller, I pointed out, might well be a gift as much as a responsibility. She might have some skill we did not practise, she might have reached some understanding we were still groping for. Perhaps we should accept the unfamiliar and learn from it?

I won’t elaborate on what happens to the “foreigner” — you’ll have to read the story yourself to find out — but I couldn’t help thinking of all the issues associated with immigration (both legal and illegal) and border controls that fill our newspapers and TV screens on a daily basis.  And perhaps that’s the greatest strength of Paradise & Elsewhere: Page takes seemingly familiar issues, places and people but alters them ever so slightly so that they’re recognisable without being completely “other”.

As a whole, the book is a wonderful exploration of an old topic — what it is to be an outsider — but it is done in such an original and refreshing way I couldn’t help but be impressed by it. I can be a bit so-so about short story collections, but I loved this one, not least because each tale gave me something to mull over and “chew”. For that reason it’s not one to race through, but one to saviour and enjoy.

Finally, I can’t finish this review without pointing out that I read the Kindle edition of this book and was rather annoyed to find the table of contents located at the rear . I didn’t even know it was there until I got to the end of the book, by which time I had no need to use the table. This might be something to bear in mind if you purchase the Kindle edition.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Heather O'Neill, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘The Girl Who Was Saturday Night’ by Heather O’Neill

The-girl-who-was-saturday-night

Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 416 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s Giller Prize season and, once again, thanks to the kind invitation of KevinfromCanada, I’m taking part in the Shadow Giller Jury for the fourth time. (You can find out more about the jury at Kevin’s blog.)

The longlist was announced last week. It featured many authors who were unfamiliar to me, but I was aware of Heather O’Neill, whose second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, was on the list. I had previously enjoyed her debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, which I read in 2008.

A Bohemian coming-of-age story

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is set in the bohemian quarter of Montreal during the 1995 Referendum. The story is told through the eyes of 19-year-old Nouschka Tremblay, whose life changes dramatically over the course of the novel: she begins night school, leaves home, marries a schizophrenic and falls pregnant. She also — rather unexpectedly — meets her long-lost mother for the first time since she was a little girl.

It is, essentially, a coming-of-age tale, but it’s not your usual run-of-the-mill one. For a start, Nouschka has an unbreakable bond with her twin brother, Nicolas, whom she loves and loathes in equal measure.  The pair still live at home with the elderly grandfather, Loulou, who raised them. They even share a bed (aged 19, remember), but have spectacular yelling matches and physical punch-ups, often in public view.

The thing is that Nicolas and I were afraid to be without each other. And whenever you are dependent on someone, then you naturally start to resent them. Everybody is born with an inkling, a desire to be free.

And that desire to be free is one of the key themes of this novel: Nouschka craves it, but is also terrified by it. Despite being raised in a relatively Bohemian household and working a full-time job (in a magazine shop since leaving school aged 16), she hasn’t really grown up and is very much repressed by her father’s fame.

Her father, Etienne Tremblay, was a famous Québécois folk singer in the early 1970s with a knack for writing witty songs (apparently their humour made up for his inability to keep a tune). He took Nouschka and Nicolas on stage and television chat shows with him all the time and made them “wave wildly at the audience and blow kisses and say adorable things that he’d written”. Now, 15 years later, the twins are still recognised on the street, which keeps them unwittingly trapped in roles they should have long grown out of.

When the pair eventually meet the mother who walked out on them, Nouschka suddenly realises that the kind of fame they’ve “enjoyed” has never filled the mother-shaped hole in their lives.

Nicolas and I immediately shot a knowing, wary glance at one another. She had loved us on television. The same way that everybody had loved us, which was the same thing as not loving us at all. We had had enough of that type of affection. What we needed was a love that was able to shine a light on who exactly we were, so that we could be people offstage. Then we would be able to be real. Then we would be able to grow up. Then we wouldn’t be joined at the hip. This woman only knew what everybody else knew about us. Of course she loved our persona. It was designed to be loved.

This may partly explain why Nouschka sleeps around — often with much older men — and marries the first person her age who asks her.

Colourful characters

Admittedly, I initially struggled to get into this story, perhaps because the characters, who are all exceptionally well drawn, felt almost too ludicrous and “unreal” to be true. But before long I got completely caught up in Nouschka’s funny little life — her dramas, her fears, her complicated relationships — and found myself warming to her, even though I didn’t always agree with the decisions she made.

Unfortunately, the narrative drags a little in places — it could easily lose 100 pages and I’m sure the story would be all the stronger for it. But I did love the backdrop of the Québécois search for a kind of freedom of their own (the irony of reading it while the Scottish Referendum was being held wasn’t lost on me), which gave the story an added depth.

The prose style, which is straightforward and “clean”, occasionally feels a little pedestrian, for want of a better word, but then O’Neill has a habit of dropping in a line or two that makes you sit up and take notice, such as:

He was running in and out of doors like a ball in a pinball machine, waking people up.

And:

White round petals were all over the ground as if the polka dots had fallen off a woman’s dress.

Needs time to settle

I actually think this is one of those books that needs time to “settle” after you’ve read it, because in thinking about this novel (which I finished five days ago) it’s already grown fonder in my mind.

It’s very much a book about parental responsibilities and our desire to be loved by our mothers and our fathers, even if they are not present in our lives. While it is important to forge our own path in life, it’s always helpful to have parents show us the way. (Or, as Nouschka so eloquently puts it, mothers are “like North Stars that guide you when you are completely lost”.)

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night might not be an obvious prize-winner, but I admired its kookiness, its themes, and its crazy little characters. It might be depressing in places — when Nicolas loses custody of his own child there’s a very real sense of history repeating itself, for instance — but it ends on a surprisingly upbeat note, which makes one feel that Nouschka’s struggles might have been worth it after all.