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The Half Life of Valery K rekindles awareness of the appalling consequences of Russian tyranny and lies and the implicit yet all-too-often hidden risks of nuclear power. The imaginative and incisive historical novels recommended here explore various aspects of these themes in different settings and from different personal perspectives.
The Atomic City Girls. By Janet Beard. 2018. Morrow, 15.99 (9780062666710).
As the Manhattan Project convened to produce the first American atomic bombs in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a gated city sprang up in in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to produce the requisite uranium, though many working there had no idea what they were involved in, including young June Walker and African American construction worker Joe Brewer.
The Big Green Tent. By Ludmila Ulitskaya. Tr. by Bela Shayevich. 2014. Picado, $23 (9781250097446).
This sprawling novel offers a wide-angle view of the stark realities of Soviet repression from the death of Stalin in 1953 to the 1970s and beyond, portraying literati, scientists, artists, educators, retired generals, apparatchiks, dissenters, KGB agents, and KGB informants.
The Cassandra. By Sharma Shields. 2019. Holt, $16 (9781250260628).
Mildred Groves, poor, gauche, and prone to seizures, sleepwalking, and prophecy, goes to work at the top-secret Hanford nuclear-production facility along the Columbia River in 1944, happily serving as secretary for a high-ranking physicist until her trances intensify, resulting in a uniquely audacious approach to the horrors of radiation.
Hannah’s War. By Jan Eliasberg. 2020. Little, Brown/Back Bay, $16.99 (9780316537445).
Eliasberg’s first novel is inspired by the real-life woman who discovered nuclear fission, Jewish Austrian physicist Hannah Weiss, who is working at Los Alamos when it’s discovered that research secrets are being leaked to Germany.
In the First Circle. By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Tr. by Harry T. Willetts. 2009. HarperPerennial, $21.99 (9780061479014).
Written after Nobel laureate Solzhenitsyn’s eight years in the gulag, bout with cancer, and sentence to “perpetual” exile in Kazakhstan, this many-voiced, philosophical, ironic, and wrenching novel set in a secret Soviet prison research facility interleaves the stories of characters trapped in a maze of toxic lies, torturous absurdities, and stark brutality.
The Nesting Dolls. By Alina Adams. 2020. Harper, $27.99 (9780062910943).
Adams’ mesmerizing historical novel follows three generations of Russian women, from the 1930s in the USSR to present-day New York, beginning in Odessa, where Daria and her husband are condemned as enemies of the state and deported to a labor camp in Siberia.
The Noise of Time. By Julian Barnes. 2016. Vintage, $16 (9781101971185).
Barnes imagines the anguish of Russian composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, during the soul-shattering Soviet epoch. For another powerful tale about Shostakovich and other artists facing repression and war, turn to William T. Vollmann’s National Book Award-winning Europe Central (2005).
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. By Lydia Millet. 2005. Mariner, $27.95 (9780156031035).
Millet dramatizes the daunting paradoxes implicit in the atomic bomb in a trippy epic featuring librarian Ann and her gardener-husband Ben, who are giving sanctuary to three unwitting time travelers, atomic physicists Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard, who are bewildered at finding themselves in twenty-first century Santa Fe, when the last thing they remember is the 1945 Trinity test.
Red Sky at Noon. By Simon Sebag Montefiore. 2018. Pegasus, $28.95 (9781681776736).
Set during the summer of 1942, Montefiore’s historically accurate and empathic novel finds Joseph Stalin amassing “penal battalions” of gulag prisoners, including Benya Golden, a 42-year-old Jewish writer, to fight a massive German assault.
The Wives of Los Alamos. By Tarashea Nesbit. 2014. Bloomsbury, $25 (9781620405031).
Nesbit’s novel is narrated by the collective voice of the women whose husbands worked at Los Alamos, telling of how little control they had over their lives and their reactions to the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Japan, while raising ever-urgent questions of war and power in the nuclear age.
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