Oh Pure and Radiant Heart -- by Lydia Millet

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart begins with the type of premise I love. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard are transported, at the moment of the first nuclear test, to contemporary New Mexico. They are discovered by a librarian, Ann, who at first refuses to believe she has seen “dead physicists.”

Lydia Millet’s latest novel takes a unique approach to the story of The Bomb. First off, the time-travelling these “dead” men do does not alter past history. One of the most touching sequences in the book is a pilgrimage they make to Japan. The physicists visit a museum dedicated to victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“The bomb” remains the definitive human invention because it is capable of wiping out all our civilizations. I admired the poetry of Hiroshima Mon Amour (book and film) and The Ash Garden, but Millet distinguishes herself with humour. The human condition is progressive, hopeless, inspiring, wrong-headed, tragic, heroic, and, looked at the right way, very funny. Millet allows us to laugh and care at the same time.

A stunning piece of world-building, this book applies research like paint. I mean, these “dead physicists” are here but where do they stay? What do they eat? Ben, Ann’s adoring husband, ends up housing entities he doesn’t believe in. Ann shouldn’t believe, rationally, but still finds that she does. This book is about faith on so many levels, including broad satire of certain sects of the Christian Right and their support of the Military Industrial Complex.

A few incidents are predictable. It was no surprise when the highly militarized Christian leadership came out in favour of nukes as a means of bringing Armageddon. Good thing this isn’t an old-fashioned suspense novel.

Millet’s book is modern. She embeds non-fiction sections into the larger story. I appreciated her facts on current-day military spending, historical casualties, and international bomb-testing. Reading a novel is like travelling alongside the author from cover to cover. How pleasant it is to be entertained on the journey but how much better to feel one has learned something too.

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