“He knew he was feeling terrible because he wasn’t getting enough radiation. If he wanted to feel strong again, to have that same energy as when he had pummelled that stupid boy, he would have to replenish his supply. Top himself up, as it were.”
The world’s first nuclear power station to generate electricity for its nation’s grid started operations in 1954 at Obninsk in the Soviet Union. Other countries soon followed suit. The UK opened Calder Hall at Windscale in 1956. By 1968, when this story is set, there were ten operational nuclear power plants connected to the UK’s commercial grid.
The Atomics focuses on a community of scientists, engineers and supporting staff brought in to operate and manage a newly built power station on the Suffolk coast. The protagonist, Frank Banner, is a talented Chemistry graduate – educated at Cambridge – who believes nuclear energy is the future of clean and efficient power. Unlike many of his co-workers, he has no fear of contamination. Indeed, he believes low levels of radiation can be beneficial.
Frank has a troubled past. His father was a farmer and a brutal man who regularly beat his wife and only child. Frank’s mother had psychiatric issues and committed suicide when he was eighteen years old. The boy idolised her and hated his father. Frank believes young women deserve protection from self-entitled and predatory men.
The story opens in Oxford where Frank has narrowly escaped a prison sentence for savagely attacking a boy. The boy’s mother retaliates, leaving Frank with mental as well as physical scars. His employers, in an attempt to avoid further bad publicity, suggest redeployment to the isolated Seton One power station. Frank understands he has little choice if he wishes to continue working in a field he enjoys. Although at times she has considered leaving her husband, Frank’s wife, Gail, agrees to accompany him. She wants a child and hopes the move will be a fresh start for them all.
Gail and Frank move into a new-build bungalow by the sea, one of many identikit residences provided for the workers at the new power station. Across the road live Maynard and Judy Scott, and their two young children. Maynard is an engineer at the plant – a lecherous buffoon whose wife drinks to forget what her life has become. When not sunning herself on the beach, Gail spends gin-soaked afternoons with Judy. Meanwhile, Frank nurses his dislike of everything Maynard says and does.
Another work colleague, Anthony, is dating Alice, a pretty young nurse at Seton One’s health centre. Alice is a local girl whose father works at a boatyard – necessary for the fishing industry that provided the region’s main employment before the power plant was imposed on them. The looming and secretive building is treated with suspicion, as are its associated incomers. Alice views Anthony as a possible route out of what she regards as a tedious backwater that expects little of its women beyond housekeeping and motherhood.
“In the village, the men were really just boys. No – worse than that – they were just fools. They believed you had to stand up for yourself or be emasculated. But it was utter bollocks. In that single loving look from Gail, Alice had sensed a world outside the village, a world of more complicated thought patterns, of people who did not accept that life was simple. That was where she belonged.”
Frank is a fascinating, terrifying creation. He regards himself as a protector, a saviour, but must always tamp down the angry turbulence of his true thoughts and desires. When his past starts to haunt him, what self-control he can muster becomes ever more unravelled. To the women he appears better and more interesting than the Maynards of their world. Only Gail knows what her husband is capable of, although not how unstable his core has recently become. Like the fuel rods he works with, Frank requires cool containment and careful handling. With Gail’s thoughts focused on getting pregnant, she fails to notice her husband spiralling away.
A chain reaction is sparked when Maynard shows an interest in Alice. Frank, with his delusions of saving defenceless young women, sets out on a mission of protection that requires an act of destruction.
“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s Third Law. True in physics, true in life. If you sin, you will be punished. It was one of the undeniable rhythms to life. And if you are the one delivering the punishment, you will be rewarded.”
The insights into the history of nuclear power, especially early attitudes to safety and the risks of wider contamination, add interest to what is a tense and evocative unpeeling of the male psyche. The female characters may be granted greater emotional intelligence but are complicit in their acceptance of certain behaviours – perhaps typical for the time period.
The pacing is not that of a thriller but the plot contains many thrilling aspects. The author delves deep into dark character traits, how they are often downplayed to make daily life easier. Much could have been made of Frank’s upbringing but the reader is trusted to note connections. A deliciously chilling denouement provides an effective rounding off.
There are elements of horror within these pages that could induce nightmares. More horrific though is the recognisable willingness of the characters to ignore what they know to be damaging in order to keep their own lives secure. The power station setting adds originality to a portrayal of the dangers posed by damaged people. An unsettling tale I am happy to recommend.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.
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