Sudden Flashes of Light

Dazzle Patterns forecasts two characters’ future through a “sudden flash of sunlight,” and Y: Oppenheimer, Horseman of Los Alamos represents birth as a “bright shock.” Both Aaron Tucker’s and Alison Watt’s novels deftly manage tropes of light signifying a fundamentally creative-destructive principle of the universe. These first-rate premier novels might be described in similar figurative terms. Both are mature, formally impeccable works of historical fiction that illuminate major events of the past century.

Tucker’s Jamesian narrator maintains an objective distance from Robert Oppenheimer even while seeming to reveal the man’s mind from the inside. The chapter progression puts us in mind of a countdown. Each chapter grows shorter as we approach, first, the atomic bomb test at Trinity Site, and next, the detonation of Little Boy and Fat Man over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. We witness Oppenheimer’s internal moral crisis over what he is creating as, paradoxically, he joyfully anticipates the personal glory that his role as hero-scientist in Project Y will bring. Tucker’s Oppenheimer is both a genius and a deplorable egoist who has trouble deciding whether to be a humanitarian or a “soldier” of war and scientific progress. The humanitarian recites from memory the poetry of Donne and Herbert that limns his moral crisis; the humanitarian learns from the Bhagavad-Gita what it will mean to “become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The egoist in a fit of jealousy attempts to poison one of his teachers, values two women who love him primarily as mirrors reflecting him back to himself, and tries to give away his infant daughter when his wife is ill because he has no time for her. Depicting such contradictory and “constant motion around” Oppenheimer’s “conflicted centre,” Y is rich in metaphors drawn from atomic science. Opposing selves and memories “collide,” and after the bombs drop, Oppenheimer’s speech “decays” as he feels a “crater” opening within himself.

Another explosion in an earlier war—one that destroyed the Richmond district of Halifax on December 6, 1917—is the subject of Watt’s narrative. The explosion centres the plot of Dazzle Patterns. Two ships, one Norwegian and one homebound for France and loaded with explosives, collided in the harbour. Energy equivalent to nearly three kilotons of TNT was released, killing two thousand people outright, injuring nine thousand, and devastating the remainder. Watt’s young protagonist, Clare, loses one eye to a fragment of glass. Fred, a German immigrant, long-time Canadian resident, and glass artist, loses his livelihood while detained as an alleged German spy. Both struggle to reassemble post-explosion and post-war fragments of themselves—Clare in pursuit of a future as a painter despite partial blindness, and Fred in hopes of overcoming anti-German prejudice to become a glass designer. The painter-author’s adept management of narrative design is anticipated in the title, Dazzle Patterns, which conjoins her concerns with visual artistry and war-inflicted trauma to a World War I method for camouflaging warships. “Dazzle painting” involves breaking up the perspectival plane on a painted surface, creating an illusion of fracture and thus rendering ships difficult to perceive accurately from afar. Watt’s shattered characters present psychological dazzle patterns as they strain to recognize themselves again, and to piece disjunctive fragments of themselves back together. Though Clare and Fred are fictional, Watt’s narrative also includes real individuals who played important parts in the true story that unfolded in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion.

Tucker’s and Watt’s novels emerge as bright spots on the literary scene. They not only present fascinating tales spun around actual historical events and people, but also rise to an aesthetic level beyond merely good storytelling through carefully managed style, narrative strategies, and formal literary features.

This review “Sudden Flashes of Light” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 167-168.

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