Back in what passed for a summer here in the UK, I read Sean Michaels’ Us, Conductors which told the story of Leon Theremin, inventor of the strange musical instrument that bears his name. Thoroughly enjoyable, it has what remains one of the best lines I’ve read in fiction for some time: ‘I had never been so hopeful as when Lenin played the theremin’. Much to my surprise, barely six months later, another novel featuring the theremin popped up: Tracy Farr’s The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt which tells the story of the eponymous virtuoso theremin player. Leon Theremin makes a cameo appearance but other than that, as far as I can tell, it’s entirely a work of fiction.
Invited to play at an electronic music festival, eighty-year-old Lena cuts an elegant figure on stage, holding the audience spellbound with the ethereal sounds her instrument produces as she moves her hands over it. Lena plays rarely these days and is more than a little irked by a poor review after the concert, so much so that against her better judgement she decides to co-operate with the woman who has asked if she can make a documentary telling the story of Lena’s life. Rather than a conventional retelling, Maureen wants an extemporised version, an improvisation, and that is what Lena gives her, picking up the manuscript she began many years ago. Hers has been an eventful life. Her first four years were spent in Singapore until the diagnosis of a leaky heart resulted in her parents sending her ‘home’ to Australia where she’s met by her delightful Uncle Valentine who heads off to war for four years leaving her at boarding school. It’s Valentine who later encourages her musical talent, presenting her with an aluminium cello when she’s summoned to join her parents in Malacca, aged sixteen; Valentine who teaches her to swim, a lifelong habit and solace in times of trouble; and Valentine who opens her mind to modernity and all its exciting new inventions, paving the way to her theremin playing. After a stultifying year in Malacca, Lena makes her escape, taking herself off to Sydney where she’s introduced to the instrument that will make her name and meets the love of her life. Music, swimming, walking and solitude – these are the constants in a life that will encompass love, tragedy and a great deal of opium.
Lena neatly unfolds her story, punctuated by visits from Maureen who gently prompts her subject, opening her up with details of her own life so that Lena divulges far more than she ever intended. Farr has a sharp eye for location. Bali, which Lena visits on her way to Malacca, is particularly strikingly described – colourful and vibrant – as is the construction of the new Sydney Bridge which Lena loves to watch, seeing it as the embodiment of modernity. Grief – of which there is much – is handled with a light touch, poignant but never cloyingly so. Lena’s voice is a strong one, carrying her story through her eventful life convincingly and engrossingly. So convinced was I that I spent some time googling her but the only thing I came up with was Farr’s novel. Not the equal of Us, Conductors for me but it’s an absorbing and enjoyable novel nevertheless. And if you want to know what Lena’s extraordinary instrument sounds like, pop on over to YouTube where you’ll find a demonstration by its inventor. Once heard never forgotten!.