I finally got a new library card last month, after not having borrowed from there since my daughter was a toddler when we used to visit weekly to stock up on picture books. I do need to spend less, to buy fewer books, but not zero – I couldn’t possibly do that! So I’m hoping that the library can help fill the gap, providing a zero cost browsing opportunity. If I find a couple of books as good as those below each time I visit, I’m going to enjoy supporting my local library.
Trinity by Louisa Hall
This ambitious novel is effectively a story cycle. Seven fictional narrators each tell of their personal encounters with the ‘Father of the Atom Bomb’, J Robert Oppenheimer. The stories run from 1943 up to 1966 when Oppenheimer was dying of cancer. Each explores a different facet of this complicated man be it, scientist, liberal, husband, lover, betrayer. He had defended the development of the atom bomb, but found it hard to live with the consequences, lobbying against nuclear proliferation after the war. He had Communist friends of whom he was protective, until McCarthyism brought him to the hearings where he gave them up…
In the first story, a secret service agent tails him to San Francisco.
It was a sunny afternoon. He was wearing that porkpie hat. One of his hands was stuffed in his pocket. The other hand was curled in a fist, and he refused to look over his shoulder.
Not once, the whole time, did he look back to see me.
That’s how I knew he was on his way to do something we would have refused.
He’d said he had to leave Los Alamos to go to Berkeley to interview new staff but instead he met with a woman, dining with her and spending the night. She had been the love of his life before, but he married Kitty, not Jean. That night would be the last time he saw Jean, who had been a Communist Party member. He would lie about the affair later in other strands before coming clean.
Other narrators include the lover of one of Opp’s colleagues at Los Alamos, a college friend whom he and Kitty visit in Paris, a fellow refugee from McCarthism whom he meets on St John island, his secretary during the 1950s, a high school student who heard him speak after his rehabilitation when Kennedy was elected, and finally the daughter of friends of the Oppenheimers who as a journalist is hired to profile the dying man; she remembers seeing a drunken Kitty as a child. All the narrators analyse their own relationship to Opp, and in examining that they uncover truths about their own lives, which are inevitably complicated in other ways.
Although there are seven different voices, the way the stories entwine around each other as the truth of Opp’s complex life emerges as we go through the years gives continuity. The narrators, although fictional, are quite real on the page. Separating the seven chapters are episodes from 15-16 July 1945 as the countdown to the Trinity nuclear test takes place.
I will admit to a fascination with books about the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos (see here and here for other novel treatments). Trinity is an engrossing and intelligent addition to this sub-genre which I very much enjoyed. (9/10)
Source: Library. Louisa Hall, Trinity (Corsair, 2018) hardback, 336 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link).
Help the Witch by Tom Cox
I’m not a big short story reader, but now and then a collection will grab my interest. I knew of Tom Cox from his twitter presence as @mysadcat (sadly The Bear is no longer with us), and although I haven’t read them, his books about sharing his life with four cats are meant to be really good. He also wrote a sort of nature/landscape/memoir, 21st Century Yokel, published in 2017, which I’d now love to read.
The stories in this collection are certainly quirky and full of humour, and are often a little dark. Often rooted in the landscape, they combine nature and folklore into contemporary settings for the most part where outsiders or incomers to the countryside live in ramshackle cottages, the title story, Help the Witch, being a particularly good example of this. Told in a diary format it follows a chap who moves to one such cottage placed on the top of a hill one winter. His two cats aren’t fans of their new abode, feeling the ghosts of previous residents. The weather doesn’t help either, forcing the narrator to stay in and get cabin fever.
It’s coming in again, from the north, straight down the Shit Weather corridor. I can see it less in the sky and more in the colour of the space between the sky and the ground, and a feeling in the air. It’s like when you’re in a room and you realise you’ve left the fridge open, before you’ve actually checked and got backup visual evidence to prove that the fridge is open.
There are some proper ghost stories, and the Aickmann-like Just Good Friends, one of the longer tales is superbly creepy – a woman embarks on internet dating only to meet someone who seems to know rather too much about her.
I particularly enjoyed the three sections of short vignettes. Listings gradually reveals the other life of a village through property listings and community notices; Nine Tiny Stories About Houses was exactly that. The last, Folk Tales of the Twenty-Third Century was hilarious – in it, Cox’s new version of Rumplestiltskin is called Little Goth Twat, and Steve Who Was Just a Tomato about the relationship between a gardener and her tomato plant was just bizarre!
These turned out to be very much my kind of short story. Great fun. (9/10)
Source: Library. Tom Cox, Help the Witch (Unbound, 2018) hardback, 208 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)