Title: The Wives of Los Alamos
Author: TaraShea Nesbit
Opening lines: ‘…Over the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the Pacific, the Artic, the Atlantic; in sewers, in trenches, on the ocean, in the sky: there was a war going on…’
Blurb: Their average age was twenty-five. They came from Berkeley, Cambridge, Paris, London and Chicago – and arrived in New Mexico ready for adventure or at least resigned to it. But hope quickly turned to hardship in the desolate military town where everything was a secret; including what their husbands were doing at the lab. They lived in barely finished houses with a P.O. Box for an address, in a town wreathed with barbed wire, all for the benefit of ‘the project’ that didn’t exist as far as the greater world was concerned. They were constrained by the words they couldn’t say out loud, the letters they couldn’t send home, the freedom they didn’t have. Though they were strangers, they joined together – babies were born, friendships were forged, children grew up. But then ‘the project’ was unleashed and even bigger challenges faced the women of Los Alamos, as they struggled with the burden of their contribution towards the creation of the most destructive force in mankind’s history – the atomic bomb.
My thoughts: I have never read a book written in such an unusual way. Instead of a character narrating the story, or a group of characters taking it in turns to narrate the story from their different points of view, THE WIVES OF LOS ALAMOS is told by all the women all at the same time; a sort of collective everywoman. Greek chorus is another expression that came to mind. I found it to be both refreshingly different and terribly off-putting.
Set in World War II THE WIVES OF LOS ALAMOS is set in an isolated part of New Mexico where scientists from all over the USA, along with their wives who came from all over the world, were sent to work on the development of the Atomic Bomb.
“…We were European women born in Southampton and Hamburg, Western women born in California and Montana, East Coast women born in Connecticut and New York, Midwestern women born in Nebraska and Ohio, or Southern women from Mississippi or Texas…”
Even though the wives came from different States, different countries, different levels of society, and each had different personalities, families, languages and needs they all had one thing in common they each followed their husbands and didn’t know where they were going until they got there. Assured that their new homes would all be equipped with everything they needed, when they actually arrived the wives found that the homes were still being built, and the school and hospital hadn’t even been started. Eventually though they all settled into the secret town located in the middle of nowhere each in houses that all looked the same while not being allowed to tell the outside world where they were.
“…We were a group of people connecting both honestly and dishonestly, appearing composed at dusk and bedraggled at day break, committed, whether we wanted it or not, to share conditions of need, agitation, and sometimes joy, which is to say: we were a community…”
So the ‘us’ and ‘we’ continued for page after page wandering all over the place until the bomb was dropped and they were all allowed to go home. In fact that is the backbone of the story, the women were told they were moving, the families all arrive, they detailed their lives there, the social activates, marital relations, affairs, schooling, medical events, then the war ends, and they have all to return to their previous lives after the war. And the reader gets to know no one. It was like a flock of birds flying in and flying out and you just get an impression of busy birds doing what birds do but you don’t get to check just one bird out. I wanted to get involved with the women and the life on the base but I couldn’t. It was like I was reading a history book. I got information but not a relationship. In fact sometimes the different opinions were so different that the last part of a sentence almost contradicted the first part, which emphasised that despite the sameness of their lives their thought were widely different.
The only time I felt that the collective narration paid off was when the bomb went off because the women all had multiple reactions to the detonation of this new and terrible weapon that their husbands had helped to create and the range of reactions just couldn’t have been conveyed as well with one or two points of view.
"…Some of us thought we saved half a million lives. Some of us thought we, our husbands, were murderers, that we had helped light a fuse that would destroy the world…"
When I was offered the chance to read this book I was really excited. I thought I was going to learn through the women about the men who created a weapon that changed the world of warfare for ever. A weapon that as terrible as it was, was actually a mere ‘pop’ when compared to the even bigger bombs that have been developed and now have the potential to end all life on this planet. But disappointingly I learned nothing except the almost senseless day to day activity of the women who themselves were told nothing about what was going. Neither did I get closer to any of the individual women to see life on the base through their eyes. So in that sense I was let down. In fact I kept thinking of the wives as being like a flock of noisy, gregarious, aggressive and gossipy starlings which concentrated on one thing then quickly got distracted by another shiny thing and flew off. However, while it didn’t necessarily meet my expectations it is an incredible debut story and is a really different take on a secretive period of history that changed the world. I will certainly look out for more books by TaraShea Nesbit
Rating: C – Above average. Was very readable and I really liked it but was easily able to put it down and walk away for a while.
For more about the author – Click Here
With thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (UK & ANZ) and the author via Netgalley for my copy to read and review.