Book Review: A Simple Scale by David Llewellyn

Book - A Simple Scale by David LlewellynA Simple Scale switches between three different time periods, weaving through the 1930s, the 1950s and into the twenty-first-century to produce something quite unsettling – a story of musical intrigue and sexual transgression, simmering beneath a veneer of secrecy and silence.    

It begins with Natalie, a music graduate who is working as PA to Sol Conrad (a retired composer with dementia) in New York in the aftermath of 9:11. She is deeply affected by the attacks, but seemingly content with her daily routine, until she receives a mysterious phone call from Pavel Grekov (a young Russian) who claims that his grandfather was the true composer of Sol Conrad’s most famous piece of music – the theme tune of a popular television series, which he claims was originally part of a Russian ballet. Natalie is convinced that there is no way these two pieces of music can possibly be linked, but she agrees to meet Pavel Grekov, and together they begin to unearth the secrets of Sol Conrad’s past.

The novel then transports us back to Sol’s early career in LA, in the 1950s, at a time of suspicion and mistrust, as he attempts to make a name for himself in the entertainment industry. He is intrigued by his paranoid, but friendly neighbour and afraid of what might happen if his own secrets become known. He seems to be locked into a destructive cycle, seeking love at every opportunity, whilst still grieving for Bernard (his dead mentor, friend and lover).

The narrative then moves to Soviet Russia in the late 1930s, where Sergey Grekov, a young composer, finds himself in trouble with the State. His tale is told backwards – we meet him initially as he returns to Leningrad after several years of hard labour and, in the following chapters, the sordid and painful events of his past are gradually revealed, to the very moment of his greatest triumph.

David Llewellyn reading at the 2018 Cardiff Book Festival

David Llewellyn speaking at the 2018 Cardiff Book Festival

This is the kind of plot that is intriguing – focused around a mystery from the past which must be solved, and the three alternating narratives work well to build suspense. Speaking at the 2018 Cardiff Book Festival, David Llewellyn explained that the novel began as a short story, inspired by hearing the March of Bacchus, thinking that it sounded similar to the theme of Knight Rider, and wondering if perhaps there was a link. He then decided to explore the plot further, and ended up writing a whole novel.

Although I really enjoyed the story, the ending felt a little too abrupt and simplistic for what is actually a complex narrative, and it left me feeling slightly disappointed. Having said that, there are scenes which are so vivid that they have stayed with me, depicting the struggle for survival in Soviet work camps, and the undercurrent of fear and secrecy in 1950s America. The writing is engaging, with a subtle edge of humour – you really get a sense of connection with the three main characters.

It is interesting that Llewellyn has chosen to write the Sol Conrad narrative in second person, and present tense. This particular narrative takes a little getting used to. The fact that Sol is physically present in Natalie’s world, yet his mind is almost entirely absent, adds a strange feel to the text, and makes it quite unnerving to read his personal account as if you were him.

This is a book which digs into the depths of well-known historical events, revealing an underside that is cruel and painful – a tale of two individuals attempting to find their way in a world which denies them freedom of expression, and freedom to love. Natalie’s story is a little different, less complex, but no less bleak, and haunted by the aftermath of terror. This is not a heart-warming story by any means.

A Simple Scale by David Llewellyn is published by Seren Books. Buy the book here.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

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