The Atomics by Paul Maunder
Lightning Books 2021
Reviewed by David Rose
This novel is a joy for anyone of my generation, which exactly spans the Nuclear Age in Britain; beginning in 1947, when Clement Attlee decisively and secretly initiated the development of a British atom bomb, unknown to most of his Cabinet, and more importantly, unknown to the Americans, who would have disapproved and sought to block it. (Interestingly, Attlee and Bevin were more concerned to stand up to America than contain Russia. See Peter Hennessy: Never Again - Britain 1945-1951.)
Through the Fifties, atomic weapons and research became a major cause for the Left, and more generally, culminating in the formation of CND in 1957, and its annual Easter marches, first from London to Aldermaston, site of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment; subsequently from Aldermaston to London. I still recall the 89-year old Bertrand Russell being arrested at a sit-in in Trafalgar Square, and imprisoned for seven days for refusing to accept being bound over to keep the peace. I remember too being aware of the pervasive concern about nuclear weapons throughout my childhood.
In the Sixties came a change in emphasis to peaceful, domestic uses for nuclear power, with Harold Wilson making claims for - and laying claim to - "the white heat of the scientific revolution" which would transform Britain socially. As part of that scientific revolution, nuclear power stations were built, on coastal sites, to utilize the sea for cooling the waste.
Maunder's novel is set in that era - in 1968 - and in one of those nuclear power stations, this (fictitious) one on the Suffolk coast. Frank Banner, its protagonist, describes his first sight of his new workplace: "The main reactor building was a huge, gleaming white box. No markings, no fuss..." A glimpse of the future, his and the country's, with its self-contained - and from the locals' view, alien - workforce in white coats or coveralls (the "Atomics"), working in surgically sterile conditions. Frank, a trained scientist, feels literally in his element (wittily, the short chapters are all titled, mostly after elements or particles: Uranium, Atom, Electron, Photon...).
Surely an odd setting for something billed "a Gothic story"? But one of the clever ironies that drive this story is that of a central character whose profession is based on atomic instability being himself unstable, subject to bursts of personal fission, explosive temper, while still capable of icy intensity and rational, scientific clarity and dispassion.
It is that amalgamation that has caused the move in the first place, from a research laboratory in Oxford. Another component of Frank's make-up - a self-image as a sort of Protector of women - led to a revenge attack by the mother of the victim of his protectiveness over a young, pregnant girl, leaving him physically and psychically scarred.
The other driver of the plot is a close-knit web of relationships and correspondences. They include firstly his parents - an ineffectual, artistic mother whom he adored, and an insensitive and bullying father; which combination may account for Frank's relationship with women, seeing himself as detached protector, devoid of personal attachment; despite loving his wife, he is disconnected, unable, for example, to understand her wish for children, and his reaction to other women isn't one of sexual desire.
Then there is his attacker, Andrea, who comes to haunt and manipulate him, her perceived whispers driving on his resolve; and an ageing but still attractive artist living in a derelict beach hut, who also encourages, for her own satisfaction, his destructive passion, later to disappear, and fleetingly reappear as a hallucination of his mother.
Above all, there is Maynard, an older Atomic colleague, whose bullying swagger and adulterous interest in a young employee brings out Frank's Protector fantasy, and turns him into Frank's nemesis.
That fantasy links to one other aspect of Frank's split personality: his irrational belief that controlled doses of radiation make one stronger - an idea once seriously maintained by scientists but by this time, long discredited - leading Frank to contrive a series of accidents to expose himself to radiation, in a bid for invincibility.
There is a moving sub-plot mirroring that self-induced radiation in the form of his wife Gail's pregnancy. Conceived in a moment of crisis, distraction, on Frank's part, the embryo is later described by Gail as "glowing with life" inside her womb, just as Frank describes himself "crackling with energy"; and in a neat touch, her nausea from morning sickness mirrors his nausea from radiation sickness, worsening by the day.
Frank dies - but not from the radiation, and I won't give away the details. But there's one more twist in the form of an epilogue, set five years later, involving Frank's little son in a brilliant and surprising vindication of Frank's irrational beliefs.
In summation, I would agree with Michael Hughes' cover endorsement: "A terrifically compulsive slice of post-war domestic noir", enhanced by its stunning and atmospheric cover design by Nell Wood, featuring a photographic example of those modernistic Frankensteinian establishments.