Book Review

The Atomics by Paul Maunder

Midsummer, 1968. When Frank Banner and his wife Gail move to the rural Suffolk coast to work at a newly built nuclear power station, they are hoping to leave the violence and pain of their past behind them.

Gail wants a baby, but Frank is only concerned with spending time in the gleaming reactor core of the Seton One power station. Their new neighbours are also ‘Atomics’ part of the power station community. Frank takes an instant dislike to the boorish, predatory Maynard, and when the other man begins to pursue a young woman who works in the power station’s medical centre, Frank decides to intervene – with terrifying consequences.

As the sun beats relentlessly upon the bleak, melancholic landscape, his demons return. A vicious and merciless voice tells him he has an obligation to protect the young woman and Frank knows just how to do it. As the weeks pass, we witness Frank’s steady descent into obsession, violent desire and barbarity.

A brilliantly unsettling story of madness, revenge and Uranium-235, The Atomics is an unforgettable debut. A literary tour de force combining the chill of the modern gothic and the pulse of a thriller.

I thoroughly enjoyed this debut novel from Paul Maunder which sees Frank and his wife, Gail, move to rural Suffolk following an incident in Oxford.  It’s meant to be a fresh start for them both, a chance to move on and put the past behind them, and maybe – if Gail gets her way – to start a family, but it’s clear to the reader from the beginning that Frank has carried his demons with him.

Frank is a fascinating character and one who displays two very different personas throughout the novel.  It’s not a case of dissociative identities, but there are two sides to his character that seem to be at war with each other and that affect his behaviour.  The mask he presents to the outside world is that of an intelligent man, quiet and unlikely to express much by way of emotion, but a good person.  The reader gets to see the other side to his character, however, and knows that underneath the surface is a man who can’t abide the predatory behaviour he sees in the men around him, and in new colleague and neighbour, Maynard, in particular.  Taking it upon himself to protect a young woman who he sees as a victim, I could only wonder which side of Frank would win out, particularly as his mask begins to slip…

Frank is a character whose actions are driven by good intentions (and there’s a proverb about good intentions that springs to mind while reading this) but whose methods leave a lot to be desired.  He is a flawed character and one who is apt to misread a situation, seeing messages and cries for help where there are none, and throughout he fails to consider whether the woman he tries to help wants and / or needs his protection.  Frank is haunted by his past and the events that caused him to leave Oxford but, rather than feeling remorse or regret, this spurs him on to further activity as his demons goad him into an escalating pattern of behaviour.  It’s a fantastically dark and disturbing read and throughout I wondered how far he was prepared to go in his self-assigned mission.

The Atomics takes place in Setonisle – on the mainland despite the suffix – a small fishing town until the arrival of the power station and the “Atomics” who work there and their families.  There’s a clear them and us mentality between the two populations and little integration, and a whole heap of resentment for the power station and the impact it has on the local residents.  I found the insight into the nuclear power industry fascinating – it provides a unique backdrop to the novel and the small-town setting adds another layer of tension to the novel.

The Atomics is a hugely enjoyable novel that’s not quite like anything else I’ve read.  It’s dark and eerie with a delicious hint of Gothic as we witness Frank’s deterioration into quite a sinister character despite his motives.  It’s a novel that looks at aspects of toxic masculinity and the predatory behaviour of some and comes with a wonderful little twist at the end.  Recommended. 

The Atomics is published by Lightning Books on 3 May in paperback and eBook.  Many thanks to Hannah Hargrave of Hargrave PR and Events and the publisher for providing a copy for review.  

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