Oh Pure and Radiant Heart

Author: Lydia Millet
William Heinemann Books
RRP: 10.99
ISBN 0 434 01557 1
Available 01 June 2006

Ann and Ben are a typical American couple living in 2003. She works as a librarian whilst he is a landscape gardener. In their eyes their marriage has reached a stage of stability, though they remain oblivious to the fact that it is synonymous with stagnation as they coast through their relationship having lost meaning and purpose. The situation changes when on the sixteenth of July nineteen forty-five The Manhattan Project successfully detonates the first atomic bomb and three of the scientists, Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi become unstuck in time and find themselves in the twenty-first century. Rescued by Ann, the trio are discovered by a fundamentalist millionaire and a race ensues to decide the fate of nuclear proliferation and the destiny of man...

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is the new novel by Lydia Millet whose previously published novels were Omnivores, My Happy Life and Everyone's Pretty. The novel itself is an interesting and eclectic mix of the terrifying and the absurd.

Thematically, the book examines a number of different yet interconnecting ideas, the central of which is the scientist's reaction to the world they helped create. They are at times justifiably horrified at not only the effects of their creations on the population of Japan, but also the crass debasement of culture and gentility which seems to have been swept away by the horrific tides of the Second World War. This might give the incorrect impression that this is a bleak book, which is far from the truth. The book is threaded through with a rich vein of dark humour and whilst Millet's depiction of many of the cultural sub-groups might seem to skirt the precipitous edge of caricature, they remain grounded enough for the reader to recognise the type and to find amusement in their inherent absurdities.

The book examines many of the characters search for truth and likewise Millet's search for the truth about the bomb. The book is written in short sections, alternating between the dramatic narrative, a history of the bomb and its relevance in today's society and Millet's often short but poignant insights to our relationship with this weapon of mass destruction. Like Joseph Heller, Millet seems to see straight to the heart of the absurdities of modern life, from the collective cultural amnesia about the bomb to the extremes to which fanatics will go to project and protect their beliefs.

With the book having so much to say and examine, the elements, which look at the historical relevance of the bomb, can sometimes slow the narrative down - indeed the whole book has a kind of slow dreamlike quality about it, like a car crash in slow motion. The ending, when it comes, comes as no surprise given the situation set up by Millet.

This is her first cross genre novel and its execution was better than I could have hoped for. At a first glance the idea of putting science fiction, religion, politics and the bomb all in one book doesn't sound like a winner. Millet has pulled it off with full aplomb and should be able to extend her reach into audiences, which hitherto may not have been aware of her work.

The book is a serious and amusing work for our scary new age, which will illuminate and entertain in equal measure.

Charles Packer

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