The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit
This is not a novel about the development of the atom bomb, but rather the development of the community surrounding the laboratory which produced the bomb. Most of the scientists who worked at Los Alamos were seconded to the military from all over the country in 1943 for the Manhattan Project under its director Robert Oppenheimer, who had chosen the location for the new top secret facility.
Many of these scientists were family men and TaraShea Nesbit’s novel tells the story through the eyes of their wives. The need for secrecy was such that the scientists’ families followed them to Santa Fe, and on to Los Alamos on the mesa – much easier to keep a lid on things with them all there. Their wives, and children if they already had them, were installed in a fenced compound of pre-fabs outside the ‘technical area’, and she tells how they established new lives for themselves during the later years of WWII.
Nesbit’s style is experimental. Each paragraph is a little vignette set within a collection of paragraphs on a theme. Each paragraph is written using ‘we’, the first person plural – but makes it clear that within the collective ‘we’ are the many different individuals that made up the community – they all have a voice, so both sides of the story are usually expressed within each paragraph…
We were round-faced, athletic, boisterous, austere, thin-boned, catlike, and awkward. When we challenged people’s political views we were described as stubborn or outspoken. Our fathers were academics – we knew the academic world. We married men just like our fathers, or nothing like them, or maybe only the best parts. As the wives of scientists in college towns we gave tea parties and gossiped, or we lived in the city and hosted cocktail hours. We served cigarettes on tin trays. We leaned in close to the other wives, pretending we were good friends, cupping our hands and whispering into their ears. And, most importantly, we found out how to get our husbands tenure.
The themed collections of paragraphs built up to present the chronological story from arrival to departure. Many of the families had a hard time settling into the army way of doing things, not forgetting the weather – from snow and mud to blinding, never-ending sunshine. They also had to get used to not seeing as much of their husbands…
Many of us hated the women scientists. And the women scientists hated us, or they had better things to worry about. We tried to be their friends. We invited one of them to lunch but she was busy. We despised what she knew and how she laughed at our questions.
But there must have been something in the water, for soon the community was awash with babies. The Army General complained. The Director said, ‘I’m not going to interfere in the lives of adults.’ There is a sense of settling down, the women build their friendships and routines; some become friends with the local Tewa women who are hired to be helps. Naturally too, some friendships and marriages will founder and not all will last the course. Not being able to quiz their husbands about their work, the women try to make their often mundane life sound exciting. They just do their best to get on with things as their husbands work towards the big one. You know how that ends – but it’s still shocking to read about it in the novel.
It may be experimental, but the style worked for me. It does require more concentration to absorb all the strands than a straight-forward narrative, and consequently it took longer to read than a conventional novel. What was truly fascinating was the way that the style celebrates the differences in the women, they are all individuals and they each have a story to tell in the book. Having said that the middle section, once the wives were well established in situ, was not as riveting as the beginning or the end, but I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s a brave author that debuts with such an unconventional first novel, but Nesbit shows great promise and I shall look out for her name in the future. (8.5/10)
For another review of this book see Susan’s at A Life in Books here.
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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit, pub April 2014 by Bloomsbury Circus, Hardback 240 pages.