I’d heard lots of good things about Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart but hadn’t got around to reading it by the time Old Baggage turned up. Given that it’s a prequel I thought I’d give it a miss but Ali’s review persuaded me it could happily stand alone for which I’m very grateful. Evans’ new novel tells the story of Mattie, once met never forgotten, picking it up in 1928, ten years after British women who met a property qualification were enfranchised. For many in the women’s suffrage movement the battle’s over but not for Mattie.
Mattie lives with Florrie, affectionately known as The Flea, in the house she bought with her inheritance. Mattie and Florrie were comrades in the fight for women’s suffrage, undergoing forced feeding in Holloway, abuse from the public and brutality from the police. At the beginning of 1928, Mattie can vote but Florrie cannot. A privileged member of the upper classes, Mattie is forthright, free with her opinions and utterly determined she’s right while Florrie is tactful and quiet, a hard-working health visitor who understands poverty and deprivation at first hand. A dramatic event on Hampstead Heath brings Ida into their lives. Poor, bright and sassy with it, Ida finds herself dragooned into Mattie’s new endeavour: a club for young girls which will educate them in preparation for voting while teaching them practical skills and physical fitness, a counterpoint to a fellow veteran campaigner’s Empire Youth League which reeks of fascism. Agreeing to a competition on the Heath, Mattie is determined that the Amazons will trounce the League but an error of judgement leads to lasting repercussions.
Evans’ novel is an absolute treat. Her story romps along replete with period detail, wearing its historical veracity lightly while exploring themes of social justice with wit, humour and compassion. Set in 1928, the novel never loses sight of the fact that while some women were given the vote in 1918, the vast majority were not, nor that when they are the battle will still be far from won. Evans is a sharp, witty writer with a keen eye for characterisation. There are many very funny moments throughout her novel – most provided by Mattie, undoubtedly the star turn and at back of the queue when tact was assigned – but these are balanced with poignant moments the sweetest of which was Florrie’s congratulatory card, opened on the day of the 1929 general election, the first in which she’s able to vote. The end sets up readers who’ve not yet read Crooked Heart nicely for Mattie’s new project. I loved it. For those of us struggling with the current political climate, Old Baggage is a happy reminder that things can get better.
I first heard about Sean Michaels’ novel from Tanya at 52 Books or Bust earlier this year. She’d read the Canadian edition and was raving about it, hoping to convert North Americans south of the border. Picking up the link for her review I checked my own comment which begins ’Sold!’ I hope that some of you will have the same reaction but if neither Tanya nor I can persuade you perhaps the judges of the Giller Prize – Canada’s equivalent of the Man Booker – can: they made it last year’s winner. It’s about, Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor born in 1896, and if that name seems familiar you may have come across the musical instrument he devised. Once heard its strange haunting sound is hard to forget.
Leon is a bright child with a keen ear for music, always devising strange contraptions. He wins a place at Leningrad’s Physico-Technical Institute where he invents an electrical musical instrument for which the player’s body acts as the device’s conductor. Notes are produced by waving an arm in front of its antenna. Leon’s invention goes down a storm, catching the attention of Lenin, no less, who sees an opportunity. Leon is packed off to the United States where he acquires a handler in the form of Pash who wheels, deals and finesses their way around the rapturous audiences attending Leon’s concerts. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Glen Miller and George Gershwin, Leon makes a splash in American society where he meets his beloved Clara. The years roll by: Leon continues to enjoy the theremin’s success, inventing new devices to catch Americans’ attention; Pash disappears when the Crash of ’29 hits but Leon’s adoring coterie rescues him. When the two Karls appear, Leon must spill what few beans he has every fortnight in order to stay in the US. Life becomes murkier and murkier, taxes accrue as do debts – it eventually becomes clear that returning to the motherland is the only option but things are not as they were: Lenin is dead and Stalin is in power. Leon finds himself convicted of spying, shipped off to a gulag until his inventive mind finds a way out albeit into another kind of imprisonment. Throughout it all, he remains hopelessly in love with Clara to whom the book is addressed in the form of two letters: the first written in the locked cabin of the ship taking him back to Russia tells the story of his American adventures; the second is about the gulag, written from his ‘scientists’ prison’ in the midst of the most secret of missions.
The bare bones of Us, Conductors are based on Leon Theremin’s life but as Michaels is careful to point out at the very beginning ‘This book is mostly inventions’, a nice little pun on Leon’s activities which gives you a flavour of Michaels’ writing. Those inventions are spun out into an absorbing story, beautifully told. Michaels has an eye for the succinct yet striking phrase – Leon is ‘baffled by comfort’ when the depravity of the gulag is swapped for what feels like house arrest, Pash’s eyes have ‘the glint of safety deposit boxes’ when making his many deals. The American chapters are as vividly exciting as the gulag sections are gut-churning. Leon is a cleverly drawn character, disarming in his naïveté yet entirely believable. It also has one of the best lines I’ve come across in fiction for some time: ‘I had never been so hopeful as when Lenin played the theremin’ Beat that! Many thanks to Tanya for alerting me to Us, Conductors, and if you want to hear the theremin pop over to YouTube where you’ll find a demonstration by its inventor.