The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit (Bloombury USA)
I expect that most reviews of Tarashea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos will begin as this one does, by noting that the entire work is written in the first person plural. The Wives of Los Alamos doesn’t contain a number of individual characters; instead, it is people by a single, plural “character,” a chorus singing in unison. This plural voice is the central fact of the novel, and it shapes the reader’s experience. Let me give you a quick sample from the opening:
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, and no matter who we were we wanted nothing to do with starting all over again, and so we paused, we exhaled, and we asked, What part of the Southwest?
Reading the first chapter, I found the “We” unsettling, not knowing of whom it was comprised.
Reading the second chapter, I found the “We” exhilarating, a stylistic device that felt almost musical in the way it simultaneously documented multiple experiences.
Further in, I found it alienating. While individual names were mentioned, the plural voice had no name besides “We,” so the central figures of the novel remained strangely disembodied. I could not, as I usually do, feel that I was getting to know them, building my own relationship with them.
And after a while, it became tedious: a clever idea that had been taken too far, an effect that wasn’t worth its cost in terms of plot and characterization. I felt I wasn’t reading a novel so much as a hugely overgrown, kudzu vine of a prose-poem. I mourned the lack of an editor who put her foot down, who insisted on content as well as style.
But then the bomb is made. The bomb is made; it is dropped on Hiroshima; it is dropped on Nagasaki. Photos come back from the blast area: shadows where people were instantly incinerated, others of individuals dying quickly from radiation burns or more slowly from radiation poisoning. And at this moment, the “We” became absolutely essential.
The “We” became essential because the scale of the bomb was beyond individual experience, because it evoked a multitude of responses that could only be embodied in a plural voice. As a reader I needed that simultaneous chorus of shock and fear and self-justification and weariness and horror and, even, indifference. I became deeply grateful that this story hadn’t been trusted to the voice, the perspective of a single narrator.
The Wives of Los Alamos is a brilliant piece of work. Yes, the voice wearies after a while, but once it becomes essential it remains essential. I feel deeply grateful that Tarashea Nesbit understood that fact and let it shape her work and my experience as a reader.