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The Wives of Los Alamos

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Many books have been written about the people, events and secrecy at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where scientists worked on The Manhattan Project and produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. But, arguably, none has been as adroitly intimate as Tara Shea Nesbit’s debut novel, The Wives of Los Alamos.

In evoking that time and place, Nesbit idiosyncratically uses a first-person plural narration in a series of vignettes that speak for all the characters in unison. Initially, the style is jarring, but as the story unfolds one is forced to admit it is the best approach to reveal this unique tale.

The Wives of Los Alamos, by Tara Shea Nesbit, Bloomsbury,  $29.99

The Wives of Los Alamos, by Tara Shea Nesbit, Bloomsbury,

For example: “Our husbands joined us in the kitchen and said, We are going to the desert, and we had no choice except to say, Oh my! as if this sounded like great fun.” This reads strangely in context with other paragraphs, but in no time at all the reader is drawn into the collective voice and the women come alive.

“We had degrees from Mount Holyoke, as our grandmothers did, or from a junior college, as our fathers insisted. We had doctorates from Yale; we had coursework from MIT and Cornell: we were certain we could discover for ourselves just where we would be moving.”

However, their destination is one of the first of many secrets. Once in New Mexico, the women live in prefabricated homes – without baths and other basic amenities – within a top-security military base. All they knew is that their husbands worked at the Tech Areas and were involved in the war effort.

Somehow, behind the barbed wire, a collective identity is formed while the women maintain their individuality;  babies are born and affairs conducted. Basically, normal life resumes in abnormal circumstances.

The Wives of Los Alamos is a distinctive and fascinating novel that breathes life into the familial relatons of the scientists involved in one of history’s most significant events. The prose is beguiling and the author has a gift for luxuriant, decisive detail and narrative sharpness that  makes this novel as bold as it is pleasurable and poignant.


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