Tag Archives: The Wives of Los Alamos

Books to Look Out for in November 2018: Part Two

Cover imageI began my first selection of November’s new titles with what will undoubtedly be a big hitter: Jonathan Coe’s Middle England. This one kicks off with a book that its publishers are clearly hoping will also be jumping off the shelves into customers’ open arms – William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer, dubbed by the New Yorker ‘the lost giant of American literature’ which has been appearing in my Twitter feed for months. Set in the smalltown South, it opens in 1957 when a young black man destroys his farm and livestock before leaving the state, swiftly followed by the entire African-American population. First published in 1962, ‘A Different Drummer is an exploration of what it is like to live in a white-dominated society. It’s a transparent, brutally honest portrayal of the impact and repercussions of systematized oppression; with a culmination as unflinching and unrivalled as its author’s insights’ say the publishers, hoping for a Stoner-like bestseller, I’m sure

Lucia Berlin’s superb collection A Manual for Cleaning Women was also heralded as a lost classic, comprising stories stretching back into the ‘60s. Those of us who thought that might be the last of Berlin, who died in 2004, have an unexpected treat to look forward to with Evening in Paradise which takes us from Texas to Chile, from New Mexico to New York. ‘Evening in Paradise is a careful selection from Lucia Berlin’s remaining stories – a jewel box follow-up for her hungry fans’ say the publishers whetting our appetites nicely.

Louisa Hall’s Trinity is about Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb, told from the perspective of seven fictional characters and revealing the contradictory character of this brilliant scientist. ‘Blending science with literature and fiction with biography, Trinity asks searing questions about what it means to truly know someone, and about the secrets we keep from the world and from ourselves’ according to the blurb. It sounds fascinating. I’ve not read much fiction about the development of the bomb which shaped the second half of the twentieth century apart from The Wives of Los Alamos, Lydia Millett’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart and Joseph Kanon’s Los Alamos. Cover image

It seems fitting to end with what’s being billed as a pacifist novel after that. Józef Wittlin’s The Salt of the Earth begins in the remote Carpathian mountains where Piotr’s limited ambitions are fixed on a job with the railway, a cottage and a bride with a dowry until he finds himself drafted into the army to fight in the First World War. ‘In a new translation, authorised by the author’s daughter, The Salt of the Earth is a strongly pacifist novel inspired by the Odyssey, about the consequences of war on ordinary men’ say the publishers, landing us back where we started in rediscovered classic territory.

That’s it for November. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your interest and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

 

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 Southwest – recommendations gratefully received. It looked like it might be a handy antidote to the cerebral Orfeo but turned out to be very much more than the slightly fluffy novel I thought it might be. 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 Nesbitt 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 Nesbit 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.