It has become fashionable of late to praise narrative nonfiction, that brand of nonfiction that seeks to employ many of the tools of a novelist while being scrupulously faithful to the factual record. This year we have an abundance of these books to consider including TITANIC, THE IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE, THE FAIRY RING, and THE GIANT (and we will consider them in due time), but BOMB sets itself apart from these fine and distinguished efforts because so wonderfully does it succeed that I feel we almost need to coin a new term to describe this level of achievement: novelistic nonfiction.
Hands down, this is the most distinguished book in terms of plot. Weaving three primary strands–the American effort to build the bomb, the Russian effort to steal the bomb, and the Norwegian effort to sabotage Germany’s bomb-making capabilities–Sheinkin spins a marvelous cloak and dagger story all the more impressive because of its verity.
Considering the sprawling nature of this plot, the setting and characters are also remarkably well drawn. For the sake of comparison, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS has a distinguished plot (not as distinguished as BOMB, mind you, but in the ballpark), but probably better development of (fewer) characters and better delineation of multiple (but–again–fewer) settings. SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS also has 40,000 more words than BOMB. LIAR & SPY is also very distinguished in all of these elements, but has a much smaller canvas than either of these books; it has 20,000 words less than BOMB and 60,000 less than SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS. My point? Given the nature of the kind of story that Sheinkin is telling, character and setting are among the most distinguished, if not the most distinguished.
Sheinkin has an effortless writing style, one that presents information clearly and succinctly, while building and maintaining suspense throughout. His narrative effortlessly incorporates primary sources which are listed in the back. However, they are not sourced very well–and it is the greatest failing of the book–but Nina will explore this in her post.
If I had to distill the themes of this book into a single word it would be allegiance. What allegiance do we owe our country? Do we owe a higher allegiance to humankind as a whole? What constitutes treason–and loyalty? As we’ve mentioned in the comments, Sheinkin never discusses these themes, allowing readers to do the heavy work of drawing them out.
This one is solidly in my top three. We’ll see if Nina can convince me otherwise . . .