Author Louisa Hall’s third novel employs an ingenious and creative tactic to paint an image of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb.” In theater, actors comb through scripts to answer the question, “What are the other characters saying about me?” It is through this Stanislavskian, indirect characterization that Hall’s Oppenheimer is revealed. A scientist who became (some would say) a mass murderer, he was a conflicted man with a varied public image who never seemed to decide how he actually felt about it all. In this staggeringly beautiful novel, he is fragmented, shown only through the eyes of people who are all struggling with their own existences.
Hall brings her seven narrators to life through rich and fascinating backstories. Their accounts span from 1943 until 1966—from two years before the Trinity test (the first detonation of a nuclear weapon) until one year before Oppenheimer’s death. We meet Oppenheimer as a potential communist sympathizer, an aloof physicist, an old friend, a mercurial boss and an insect crushed underfoot. The image Hall paints of him is in watercolor—blurry, overlapping, at odds with itself.
There are more similarities between the narrators than there are differences, despite their various backgrounds and roles in Oppenheimer’s periphery. Each grapples with the cold realization that people are infinitely separate. Shared memories often differ between those who share them. People come together for mere moments, and sometimes a flash of bright light allows us to glimpse each other’s bones.
Oppenheimer was a man obsessed with reading and quotations. Years after the Trinity test, in anticipation of an interview, he scrambled to retrieve his copy of the Bhagavad Gita to provide the famous quote, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Trinity itself is a name inspired by a John Dunne poem—but two decades after the test, Oppenheimer still could not fully explain his choice.
Hall has not captured Oppenheimer’s character, as to do so would be to lose his very essence. Instead, she brilliantly creates a fertile spot in her reader’s imagination, allowing us to draw conclusions based on our own realities. Trinity is a masterpiece.