Sometime in the summer of 1943, a team of US-based scientists came home to their wives and announced that the family would soon be heading southwest. These twentysomething women had no say in the move, and no idea where they were going; they might as well have been blindfolded. Stepping off the train in Sante Fe, New Mexico, they were led to an unmarked desert town with prefabricated homes and no sign yet of a hospital or school. There, unbeknownst to them, their husbands would soon assemble the first atom bomb.
TaraShea Nesbitt has turned this true story into a novel. Her characters are mainly professionals and university graduates, and some even have Harvard and Yale doctorates (as they did in real life). They have no clue what their husbands are up to. They settle into identical olive-green homes, endure constant water shortages, sit home raising children, and take secretarial jobs at the military base. The only women leading interesting lives in this corner of America are the female scientists who work elbow-to-elbow with the men in the lab. Needless to say, they're unpopular with the men's other halves.
In The Wives of Los Alamos, first-time author Nesbit adopts an unusual point of view. Instead of picking one woman as the narrator, she tells the story through the eyes of all of them, using the collective "we". As she explains in interviews, these women helped make the bomb, yet their voices were never heard. Nesbit empathises with the scientists' wives and skilfully conveys their bleak predicament, which resembles that of any homemaker suffering from isolation.
The book gains in dramatic intensity when the goings-on in the lab start to spill out. The women notice burns on their husbands' skin. They feel the ground shaking and the walls rattling. They witness a pre-dawn mushroom cloud on the horizon. Predictably enough, The Wives of Los Alamos peaks with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – when the wives discover that their husbands' invention has defeated an enemy, yes, but also caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Nesbit's first book is not without promise, and she shows an ability to get under her characters' skin. At the same time, her technique of writing in the collective voice – "We hated the barbed wire fence, although some of us hardly noticed it with time" – gets repetitive, especially when used to deliver routine accounts of childcare, marital distance, cooking and gossip. The Women of Los Alamos would work much better with some of that repetition chopped out. In fact, it would make a very good novella.