Evidence of Things Unseen, by Marianne Wiggins. Simon & Schuster. 352 pages. $25.
Science and its consequences are central themes in Marianne Wiggins' latest book, but it is the things that cannot be quantified and predicted that are truly moving: an enduring marriage, a betrayal of trust, questions of faith, a quest to make peace with the past.
Wiggins, whose six previous novels include Eveless Eden and John Dollar, has built her latest around a believable cast of amateur scientists.
Ray Foster, nicknamed Fos, returns from World War I, where he worked with chemicals to light the battlefield. He continues his fascination with things that glow, experimenting on fireflies and eels.
Fos goes to observe a meteor shower on the North Carolina coast and meets and marries Opal, the daughter of a glassblower with a skill for counting. He takes her back to Knoxville, where she joins the photography studio Fos runs with his war buddy, Flash. On weekends, they travel to fairs showing off science experiments, including Fos' X-ray machine.
The ideas of pursuing knowledge and embracing progress are visited constantly throughout the book, as are metaphors of seeing and light. The characters listen to the radio as Clarence Darrow defends the teaching of evolution. They work for the Tennessee Valley Authority as it builds huge hydroelectric dams. They experiment with photography.
Moby Dick, with its epic search for the white whale, is repeatedly referred to.
But, inevitably, the characters have to deal with the uncertainty of human emotions and choices. Marriage, infertility, desire, betrayal and loss contrast powerfully with science and its promise of clear-cut causes and effects.
The dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan and a deadly illness coincide to force Fos to confront both the ways people can manipulate science, and the ways in which they can lose control.
"Of all the things we could have done, of all the things that we could do with the natural wonder we call science, he [Fos] was thinking. Of all the goddam things. Make a goddam killing weapon."
Fos' reaction has serious consequences for his son, Lightfoot. The one character more interested in history than science, the child eventually must take a few meager pieces of evidence and find peace with the past. Lightfoot's journey is among the most resonant parts of the book. Unfortunately, it really begins a little more than 60 pages from end, making the novel seem a bit unbalanced.
Wiggins -- who has an admirable talent for providing details and sticking doggedly to her central themes -- also spends too much time on detailed speeches and ruminations. In places, she lets the characters describe her points at length, rather than trusting the reader to make the connections themselves.
At one point, Wiggins writes, "Even though he [Fos] knew he ought to worry more, he knew that if he harried every motive, guarded every move, that he might be safer, sure. But then he'd miss the magic -- wouldn't he?"
The author too, is most successful when she leaves the safety of "harrying every motive" and reveals the unseen, inexplicable elements of humanity. In those she creates a bit of literary magic.
Sandy Alexander is a reporter in The Sun's Howard County bureau, covering the arts and higher education. Previously she was assistant to the book editor at the paper. She earned her master's degree in journalism at the University of Maryland.