Combining poetic narration, endearing characters and folksy dialogue, Marianne Wiggins paints a beautiful marriage portrait in Evidence of Things Unseen. Ray Foster, an amateur scientist and survivor of mustard gas poisoning in France, falls in love with Opal Fiske, daughter of a North Carolina glass blower, while visiting Kitty Hawk to observe the annual Perseid meteor shower.
Fos, as he’s known, is obsessed with natural science, particularly radiation. Opal, poorly educated but bright enough to fix Fos’s truck when it breaks down, becomes obsessed with motherhood following a romantic courtship scene beneath the falling stars. Supporting themselves with a photography business in Knoxville, Tennessee, Fos and Opal spend the years between the two world wars fishing with Fos’s war buddy Flash, displaying Fos’s x-ray machine at county fairs, and trying to make a baby. Disillusionment with Flash and failure in parenthood serve only to bind the couple closer.
Light and energy are central to the narrative, presented as both beautiful and dangerous. Fos’s reputation as a phenomenologist draws him into the top-secret Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge. Throughout the novel, Wiggins gives us a rich sense of regional culture, from the treacherous power of the Tennessee River to the dark politics of racial bigotry. Skillfully, she weaves Clarence Darrow into the narrative, first in his role in the Leopold and Loeb trial, then in the Scopes “monkey trial.”
Particularly fascinating to me is the government’s effort to sell the Oak Ridge project to a rural population being uprooted from their homes to make way for a hydroelectric dam that will bring them modern conveniences. The author has obviously done a great deal of research and used it to advance her theme.
I found the latter part of the novel sad and disturbing, though undeniably realistic. I was also frustrated that near the end, such a great writer relied heavily on offensive language that tarnished her narration. For this reason, my rating is limited to only four stars.