The Atomics by Paul Maunder

This psychodrama had two great selling points that immediately made me keen to read it. Firstly its timeline is the late 1960s, and secondly it’s set against the backdrop of a nuclear power station.

The novel opens with a mystery, that will be explained fully as the story progresses. Frank is out for a walk in Oxford, digesting the contents of a letter he had received…

A very serious criminal incident… the letter had gone on to say. We need to ensure that you are wholly fit to return to work and do not pose a threat to yourself, your colleagues or the wider community. Was this to be another trial? Hadn’t the police done their job to everyone’s satisfaction? Would he have to become a monkey in the Authority’s laboratory just to get back to work? He missed his work. Away from it he was getting weaker, mentally and physically. Yes he’d been found guilty. There were too many witnesses to realistically expect any other outcome. But a suspended sentence meant he should be able to return to work immediately. He was a good man. He’d acted to protect the girl, in her interests.

Then, in the second chapter, Frank is maimed in revenge, his face knifed on one side from eye to mouth leaving a terrible scar. Friends tell his wife Gail to leave him, but she can’t. Frank just obsesses over the things women have done to him, the knife wielder, and his own mother who committed suicide – he couldn’t help her.

The Authority decide that having him back to work there is not practicable, so a transfer is organised. It’s midsummer, and Frank and Gail find themselves on the road to Suffolk where a new nuclear power station has recently been built. A bungalow in the ‘Atomics’ village built for the workers awaits. It’ll be their new start, and Gail is hoping for a baby.

They soon meet their neighbours, Judy, Maynard and their kids. Maynard is an engineering manager at the plant: Frank takes an instant dislike to him. Gail takes an instant like to Judy and the two will become close friends as the summer goes on.

When Frank discovers that Maynard is embarking on an affair with Alice, a local young woman who is a nurse at the plant, it starts to bubble up in him again, driven by the voice of the woman who maimed him, and by not so accidental little doses of radiation that he engineers. Frank must protect Alice at all costs.

We see Frank’s descent into madness and anger, his urges to commit violence barely suppressed, his urge for danger increasing daily. Gail is preoccupied with her own concerns, and spending more time with Judy.

Without the nuclear setting this novel would still have been a compulsive piece of domestic noir, but the addition of the power station, Frank’s unhealthy obsession with his work and the dynamics of being stuck in the sterile ‘Atomics’ village all add to the sense of horror that builds up.

Frank was damaged early after his mother’s suicide, and this was the 1960s, PTSD wasn’t really recognised then. Frank’s crime alluded to at the beginning of the novel sets something loose in him, only to resurface again. We’re never quite sure whether Gail is at risk from Frank either, and that also adds to the tension.

One feature of this novel I particularly liked was the chapter titles, mostly single words, many related to nuclear physics, such as Uranium, Reactor, Containment, Nucleus, Chain Reaction, Alpha, Beta, Gamma and so on; they cleverly reflect the events in each chapter in a way.

Paul Maunders is known as an author of cycling journalism – I couldn’t possibly comment on that! The Atomics is his first novel, and I can say that I enjoyed it very much.

Source: Review copy. Paul Maunder, The Atomics (Lightning Books, 10 May 2021) paperback original 252 pages.

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