The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

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The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: In perhaps one of the most original novels this year, the confined lives of scientists' wives from the Manhattan Project are explored. Their husbands may be in Los Alamos to do their job, but the wives existence isn't so clear cut, nor indeed satisfying.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: April 2014
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1408845998

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1943: In the US a group of men, women and children are uprooted from their homes with hardly any notice and after being sworn to total secrecy. Their destination is a hastily knocked up, unfinished small town in the New Mexico desert; a place where muddy water drips from the taps and their lives are turned upside down for nearly 3 years. This isn't mass abduction by a malevolent power but the US government's plan to end WWII. The men (and some of the women) are scientists, the place is Los Alamos, the site of the project that will result in Robert Oppenheimer stating Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." His story has been well documented in the past; now the voices belong to the Los Alamos Wives.

Creative writing lecturer and PhD TaraShea Nesbit was researching the former nuclear production site at Hanford, Washington State in her native US. This was where the plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb was produced but that isn't what sparked her imagination. During her reading TaraShea found a comment from a female scientist wondering why the scientists' wives on the project didn't like her. Intrigued, TaraShea turned her spotlight onto the scientists' wives themselves which, in turn, led her to The Hill, their compound at Los Alamos, New Mexico and, ultimately, a debut novel that's as original as it is interesting.

The first thing we notice is that the story is written completely in the first person plural; something I'd never seen this side of fantasy or sci-fi novels. It's not for literary effect mind you, there's logic behind it.

Whenever TaraShea interviewed 'Los Alamos wives', even individually, they always referred to 'we'. To begin with I didn't think I'd enjoy it because of this. I missed relating to individual characters. However, within 50 pages or so I got used to it. Within 75 pages I began to love it, realising that it provides the impression of a collective consciousness that matches their restrictive, communal lifestyle. By the time I finished it, I wanted to start reading all over again.

There are times when the writing feels like prose poetry and, like a prose poem, there's a lot more there than meets that first glance. The writing hops from one subject to another in sections divided into years up until 1945, sometimes covering as much as three or four subjects per page. But this stripped down, almost skeletal format is deceptive as each paragraph is packed with both explicit and implicit flesh that becomes fascinating and fact-packed.

These poor women aren't there for their health. Initially they're there to support their husbands in good old 1940s' model wife style. Ultimately they lead a very artificial and emotionally uncomfortable life, guarded in a goldfish bowl of a village, prevented from revealing secrets they don't even know in the first place. Once a child becomes old enough for university they were banished back to everyday USA, their parents being prohibited from following or visiting during the term of the project. There was another method of temporary escape but this way is a reminder of mortality and the war that rages outside their collective isolation and so not to be desired.

There aren't only the insights into the animosities that initially spurred TaraShea's imagination but fascinating insights into the way that the military dealt with non-military problems. For instance, as a partial result of the boredom (among other things!), 80 babies are born in the first year which in turn causes the women to miss their extended family or hired help (depending on the type of assistance they're used to). The army realises they have to do something so they bus in women from the local first nation villages to act as maids. This may stem the problem in some ways, but not without creating problems of its own. Also, going beyond the war, the problems (internal and external) they face on returning home in 1945 once realisation hits, make enthralling (and poignant) reading.

This may not be the first book written from the viewpoint of the Manhattan Project spouses (there's quite a comprehensive bibliography at the back) but TaraShea's brave, refreshing style provides us with an overview that's a riveting jumping-off point for further reading. It's certainly piqued my interest in the era, the location and, indeed, anything else that TaraShea writes.

A big thank you to Bloomsbury Circus for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: If you would like to read more about the Manhattan Project, we recommend Inside The Centre: The Life of J Robert Oppenheimer by Ray Monk. If you want something at a bit more of a tangent but still connecting with WWII, one of my favourite books is Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard.

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Booklists.jpg The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit is in the Top Ten Women's Fiction Books 2014.


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