This was a mind blowing and confronting book to read. It was originally written to be published in the New Yorker Magazine in 1946, in the aftermath of Hiroshima. The book describes the events of the explosion of the Atomic Bomb on August 6th, 1946, through the lives and experiences of 6 individuals. The rawness of the explosion itself is muted by the linear factualness that Hersey uses to convey the enormity of the tragedy. This is then interwoven with the suffering of each individual and the incomprehensibility of what unfolds. All of this is magnificently conveyed through the ordinariness of Hersey’s characters, their every-day quality: “Mr Tanimoto is a small man, quick to talk, laugh and cry.”
The empathy that Hersey invokes is intense:
“As Mrs Nakamura stood watching her neighbour, everything flashed whiter than any white she had ever seen. She did not notice what happened to the man next door; the reflect of a mother set her in motion toward her children. She had taken a single step (the house was 1,350 yards, or three-quarters of a mile, from the centre of the explosion) when something picked her up and she seemed to fly into the next room over the raised sleeping platform, pursued by parts of her house.”
Before readers can discover the fate of Mrs Nakamura’s three children, we are thrust into the world of the next character, Dr Fujii who “saw the flash. To him – faced away from the centre and looking at his paper – it seemed a brilliant yellow. Startled, he began to rise to his feet. In that moment (he was 1,550 yards from the centre), the hospital leaned behind his rising and, with a terrible ripping noise, toppled into the river.” Each character’s experiences are described with same magnitude and emotion and readers are connected, in turn, to the lives of them all.
What makes this book so worth reading is not the account of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb, nor the horrific medical impact that the radiation had on so many people, nor is it the pollution or the devastation and destruction that was wrought on Hiroshima and later on Nagasaki. Rather, what struck me so intensely, was that even in the midst of all this disaster there is space for humanity, for relationships, for love and for human interaction. It was this that made this book so a worthwhile read. There is no denying the tragedy of these events, but the dignity of the characters that we meet on the journey through this catastrophe is inspirational.