The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit: An accomplished, unconventional first novel

Cover imageI was attracted to TaraShea Nesbit’s debut as much for its location as for its subject. My attention’s snagged by anything set against the stunning landscape of the American South West – recommendations gratefully received. It looked like a handy antidote to Richard Powers’ cerebral Orfeo but turned out to be very much more than the slightly fluffy novel its cover suggested. Opening in 1943, it’s about the wives of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project – the three-year development of the atomic bomb – deep in the New Mexican desert far away from their homes, friends and families.

I’d expected a straightforward linear narrative exploring how the wives coped with their new lives while their husbands worked on the weapon which wreaked such devastation on Japan, not once but twice, ending the final phase of the Second World War but Nesbit takes a much more unconventional approach writing her novel in the first person plural and dividing it into chapters of a page or two made up of short paragraphs. A pretty daring structure for a first novel and at first I found it a little tricksy but somehow she brings it off using the technique to emphasise both the diversity of these women who came from all over the world and the universality of their experience.

These were women who’d had lives of their own – some with prestigious jobs, some not so, others were housewives – now plunged into isolation and secrecy. Some had children, others did not, and some became pregnant while there. They were faced with the loneliness of separation, constricted lives – they had to get passes to go as far as Santa Fe – the absorption of their husbands in work that they were not permitted to know anything about and the increasing distance this opened up in their marriages. They were not allowed to tell anyone where they were and could only go home for weddings and funerals where they couldn’t discuss their lives. Friendships formed, affairs were had, gossip was enjoyed, marriages broken. Water shortages, poor food and a challenging climate had to be endured. Then there was the aftermath: psychological problems, health problems – many of the scientists exposed to radiation died from cancer – guilt, the accusations of their children and of others. All of this is powerfully conveyed in what feels like testament. It’s a highly accomplished first novel and I’ll be on the lookout for Nesbit’s next.

Several of the novels I’ve read this year have turned their backs on good old-fashioned linear narrative, most notably Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World and Jenny Ofill’s Dept. of Speculation. I usually start out uneasy with it but often become converted as I did with The Wives of Los Alamos. How do you feel about unconventional structures? Are there books that have converted you to them? If so, let me know which ones worked for you.

13 thoughts on “The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit: An accomplished, unconventional first novel”

  1. I was interested to know how this book read, I requested it and was turned down, which sometimes I am grateful for – but there was something about the premise of this book that attracted me, interesting that you have picked up on it as well.

    Great review and interesting comment on the unconventional structure. I don’t mind as long as it doesn’t impose too much on the reading experience, its a fine balance and when it works, it has power.

    I absolutely love Cormac McCarthy’s unpunctuated prose for example whereas for some it irks. Rather than its presence I find the absence somewhat freeing and fluid and it makes me realise that punctuation is in fact an imposed structure on the fluidity of language. But it takes real talent to eliminate it while elevating the oeuvre.

    1. Susan Osborne

      I agree absolutely with your point about talent, Claire. I was chatting this morning with a friend about Jonathan Buckley’s Telescope, a book with very few paragraphs. Although it was a good book and I wanted to enjoy it my heart sank when I turned the page to be faced with two more slabs of unbroken prose. I think TaraShea Nesbit has enough talent for her unconventional technique to succeed. I hope you read it.

      1. Oh and now I am remembering thinking that when I opened and began to read The Mussel Feast, but it was a novella and I couldn’t believe the prose and the tension just made you continue what was almost one long paragraph lasting an entire book!

        1. Susan Osborne

          I’ve heard so many good things about The Mussel Feast that nothing will put me off that!

  2. Nice review for a book I really liked. I read it as part of Dewey’s 24 hour Book-a-thon. It worked very well for me. It was the third book in my read and it made a nice change of pace. Not something I would like all the time but it’s a good way to create a collective biography. The situation becomes the main character.

    The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka effectively uses this same first person plural structure. You might enjoy the way Aaron (Typographical era) reviews it.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Many thanks for the link, Martha. I’ll check it out. By the end of the book I thought Nesbit’s technique was an excellent choice for expressing both the diversity and the universality of the women and their experience of what must have been an extraordinarily difficult time.

  3. What an interesting sounding novel! I do like unconventional narratives, though I like good old linear ones too. But I thought Sarah Water’s The Night Watch was extremely clever in its backward-moving narrative (and much better than Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, who I suspect does things just because they are clever).

    1. Susan Osborne

      Absolutely spot on re Mr Amis! And at first I thought TaraShea Nesbit might fall into the same trap but she carries it off beautifully and her technique entirely fits her subject.

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