Collective writing style is both the strength and the weakness
The Wives of Los Alamos, TaraShea Nesbit’s first novel, is a fascinating account of the New Mexico Los Alamos community, where in the last couple of years of the Second World War, a community of physicists and chemists came together to develop the ultimate weapon (the atomic bomb) to end the war (though evidence came to light that questions whether, having started the process, it needed to be used at all)
Nesbit’s approach is, as the title suggests, a focus on the women of that community. There were a couple of (more-or-less-disliked by the wives of the scientists) female scientists, but in the main, this is the story of those educated women, for the most part, who had married educated men, and had, in some cases, had careers of their own. National Security meant wives, husbands, children upped and relocated to the desert and everything was shrouded in secrecy – friends and family did not know what was being worked on, why, and leaving the base not possible. A closed community sprang up with a secret focus that most people did not quite know about – husbands, with different levels of security clearance, only knew their own allowed information (though of course, people DO inadvertently drop information, gossip, get overheard etc) and were forbidden from telling the wives. But, ditto.
What Nesbit has done, rather than take the real individual people the known scientists, their real families, and follow individual stories, or even to invent fictitious characters to stand for those real stories, is to strip out individuality, and tell the story as a collective ‘We’, which further is broken down to include all possible variables of that real collective
For example :
Many of us had no children when we arrived, or toddlers, but some of us were older, and when we arrived our children were nine and now they were eleven. Or we arrived and they were one of the few thirteen-year-olds and now they were fifteen. It was terrifying.
This is pretty well the style throughout, more like a qualitative statistical report, than the more usual novelistic approach where we follow selective stories. Here, in cool fashion, we are given all stories at once, and are never allowed inside the head of any one person, though eventually we are given a few names, Louise, Margaret, Katherine and some 15 or so others, but always in the same fashion, offering us options on these named women, but usually when this happens the options are for superficial things, such as what they wore. We are never taken inside the feeling individuality, never allowed to empathise with any one, never accorded one individual being of more weight than another.
It is a distancing device, and forces the reader to feel a generalised weight of history, containing all its variables, clinically looked at. The anonymity, the not being allowed to get close to any one character mirrors the anonymity, the secrecy, the reserve forced onto that artificial community.
The stylistic choice is congruent with the material – but ultimately began to feel frustrating. I was on the verge of giving up, when, some twenty per cent of the journey through, the sting in the tail, tossed out dry humour of the end of paragraphs of variables, as in my sample above, began to prickle and worm its way into me.
Many of them (the husbands) cared a lot about utility and nothing for appearances. If it were their choice our bookshelves, dining room chairs, and coffee tables would all be made of industrial materials like steel. Thankfully for us, these materials were difficult to come by during the war
As the community got deeper into their time in Los Alamos, and widened to include the earlier real communities of New Mexico, drafted in as nannies and home helps, and relationships began to deepen, to fracture, to grow closer, so I too felt myself become more interested
And I did stay with the book, beyond the fracturing of the community, beyond the bomb, and beyond the development of others, into a new America, and into the repercussions of those researches, into the loss of innocence, the culpability, the moral ambiguity, the conflicts that came and are to come, from after the bomb.
Odd images, rather than individual stories, gave me flavour – for example, on arrival, everyone had to hand their cameras in (everyone) This meant that some 2 years of family life went unrecorded – no pictures of any new-born babies, the usual family pictures marking time in albums. That image (or rather, the lack of image) was a pretty powerful one
I ended up appreciating this book enormously, but somewhere, the every option collective voice prevented that imaginative effect of fiction, through identification of character, where the reader feels viscerally into engagement.
A really interesting, well written book, though perhaps a victim, in the end, of its dedication to its style.
I received this as an ARC from the publisher, via NetGalley.