When the Banners move to the rural Suffolk Coast. one can only hope that it is the fresh start that they are hoping for. The wife, Gail, is preoccupied with having a baby. The thoughts of husband Frank reveal something altogether more troubling. A nuclear physicist, he is being transferred under a cloud. Having been convicted of battery but not imprisoned (because nuclear physicists are in short supply and society needs him elsewhere), he then becomes the victim of a revenge attack. This leaves him haunted by his malevolent attacker and with a livid facial scar, anger and violence indelibly cut into his face.
You could argue that anger and violence have always been a part of Frank’s personality and that the scar is a visible sign of it now coming to the surface. His childhood and adolescence were marred by a brutal father and a depressive mother, who eventually took her own life. Unable to help her, Frank seems to have developed a protector complex. He will help all wronged women as best he can. The explosion of violence that led to his prosecution reveals that this crusade is less than chivalric and that Frank is as unstable as the materials he works with.
The summer of 1968 is a hot one with even management at the nuclear power station warning that some materials might become volatile in such hot air temperatures. Indeed. The behaviour of Maynard, Frank’s neighbour to whom he takes an instant dislike, is driving his core temperature skyward. Maynard, married with three kids, is intent on seducing the much younger Alice and Frank sees this as abuse …
Just how unhinged is Frank? There’s the prior history. With no psychological counselling back in the late 1960s, he is probably suffering from PTSD. This would account for the deranged voice of his attacker that urges him on to ever more outrageous acts. Most worryingly there is his obsession with radiation. He believes it makes a man stronger and so he manufacturers a series of low-grade accidents to ensure he gets a regular fix. Clearly we should add radiation sickness to his woes. With Gail spending most of her time drinking gin with the other lonely wife of the piece, Maynard’s wife, Judy, and Frank’s state of mind escalating from anger to fury, it’s just a matter of time before the man goes boom!
The Atomics is a compulsive study of a mind sliding from troubled to deranged. I really enjoyed the buzzing hum of radiation with which the text is infused. All chapter headings relate to nuclear science in some way and the nuclear power station is a gift for hidden metaphor. Take H5, a cavernous shed containing three cooling ponds.
Pond was a misleadingly pastoral name for what were essentially huge rectangular tanks of water. In each pond was a quantity of radioactive waste, mainly spent fuel rods, but also any piece of metalwork that had been extracted from the reactor core. As long as it was submerged the material was safe. If the tanks were drained and the material exposed to air, it was so buzzy, that it would heat up and quickly start a fire … It was a peaceful sort of place, if you could come to terms with the critical threat of what lay beneath.
I find that a perfect analogy of Frank’s psychological state. Where was his cooling pond?