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Oh Pure and Radiant Heart review

The creators of the atomic age are transported forward in time.

454 PAGES · £10.99

Author:
Lydia Millet

Publisher:
William Heinemann

ISBN:
0-433-01557-1

Rating: 5/5

Lydia Millet writes prose to live by. This novel keeps exploding compressed wisdom-bombs in your head. By page 46 I’d found the epigram for my next book and a quote for a text message to a depressed friend.

Robert J Oppenheimer finds himself alive and well in Santa Fe in 2003. The other fathers of nuclear weapons, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, are also blown from one reality into this one. They start to come to terms with their terrible legacy, visiting Los Alamos and Hiroshima with Ann, the librarian who first recognises them. Szilard builds a peace movement, but evangelicals take it over, believing that Oppenheimer is Christ returned. The Rapture is at hand.

At one point, Ann sees our world through the scientists’ eyes: “…what was missing from public life was anguish”. Millet restores our anguish about nuclear weapons. “By the turn of the millennium, nuclear weapons production facilities occupied over three thousand square miles of US territory.”

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart mixes mysticism, comedy, outrage and paranoia. Government agents threaten the three revenants. Trying to account for why they are here, Oppenheimer points at the world around him, “…at the garages off the alley with their blistering paint, a tire swing hanging from a dead tree, a filthy silver car with a suction-foot Garfield in the rear window. ‘[All of this] is our delusion. Including you.’” It’s like a more stately version of Philip K Dick.

The ruminating attention to detail slows things down, but the novel never fails to be convincing, and it accelerates to a confounding climax. This is an important book by a major writer.

Geoff Ryman

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