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Fiction World War Ii

Let It Destroy You

A Novel

by (author) Harriet Alida Lye

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Jun 2023
World War II, Literary, Biographical
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2023
    List Price

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Inspired by the true story of a dangerous atomic weapon and the man who designed it, here is a stunning novel of morality, creation, and loss from the acclaimed author of The Honey Farm and Natural Killer.

It is August 12, 1945. Tomorrow, August Snow will be tried at the International War Crimes Court for patenting a more lethal variation on the atomic bomb. He invented a radiation machine to cure his young daughter’s cancer, despite knowing that the very same technology was capable of great destruction, and inevitably profited from disaster. But are his intentions relevant when the fate of the world is at stake?

August’s former wife, June, will also attend the hearing. Restless in her Hague hotel room the night before, she keeps watch over their daughter and reflects on the events that brought them here. She had nothing to do with making the bomb. But is she innocent? Wouldn’t any wife and mother have done the same thing in her shoes? And now, will it cost her everything?

Inspired by the physicist Leó Szilárd and the letters he wrote his wife, Gertrud "Trude" Weiss, Let It Destroy You is told in parallel narratives and ventures from Budapest to Berlin to Colorado, and back to Europe. It is a love story about two people whose destinies are bound by everything they share, and all that they’ve kept from one another. Above all, it is a testament to the logic-defying love of a parent who will stop at nothing to protect their child.

About the author

Harriet Alida Lye is a writer from Richmond Hill, Ontario. She studied Philosophy and English at the University of King's College in Halifax and lived in Paris for the better part of eight years. She founded and edited Her Royal Majesty, a literary arts magazine that ran for six years and published James Franco, Robert Hass, and the first-ever short story by Alice Munro. Her fiction, essays, and reporting have been published by VICE, Hazlitt, Happy Reader, The Guardian, The National Post, and more. Harriet now lives in Toronto, and works at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. This is her first novel.

Harriet Alida Lye's profile page

Excerpt: Let It Destroy You: A Novel (by (author) Harriet Alida Lye)

I have been up at night for weeks trying to imagine how it will play out, how the dynamics will feel. Most likely there will be no time for any kind of intimacy, not even a “hello” or “how are you.” We will be on different sides of the wall. One thing I know is that, when I see him, a happiness will come to me, without my choosing to welcome it. I’m bracing myself for this. The idea embarrasses me. But he was the one who made me happy for so many years; he was the one I was always excited to see after months, or even hours, of not seeing him.

Alongside my happiness I imagine there will also be a sort of pain. Not for all that is going on now, for this is constant, a bass note to every day. Tomorrow there will be a new, sudden, jab in the heart. I can feel the edges of it now, just anticipating it. The last time August and I saw each other, though there was anger, even hatred, there was also love. Love is not a given, now. I don’t feel sad at the thought of not loving him anymore, for of this I am fairly certain, but the thought that he might not love me is — it changes everything.

There is pain, too, in suddenly being thrust back into the orbit of someone who was my gravitational pull for so many years. For almost all of my adult life. Absence dulls the feeling so that most days I don’t have to think about it, but being in the same room as him again will put our timelines back together and they will be parallel, not overlapping. There is a point at which it is no longer possible to catch up to the present with someone, where a general recap is all you might be lucky to get. A “Fine thanks, and you?” This is not what I want from August. I think I would be sick if it came to that. I don’t even want the intimacy of dailiness anymore; I’m not sure we ever had that. My longing for that isn’t a memory so much as a fantasy. Maybe that’s where the heart of the pain lies: that what I miss the most is something I never had. The idea of feeling these kinds of pain when I see him is more humiliating than the thought that I might feel joy.

What will he say tomorrow? Will he tell the truth? I can’t imagine August lying about his work, and yet if he doesn’t —

It will be fine, I say sometimes to a person I’ve invented, a nice friend I keep in my head. We will all be fine. I repeat this now, to her, to myself, to August, wherever he is right now.

There’s a little fridge filled with tiny bottles of alcohol that I noticed when we arrived in the room. I go over quietly to see what might be available. The shelves are full of test tube–sized bottles, the liquids a muted rainbow of yellow, amber, red. I twist off the top of a bottle of rum, pour it into the wide-bellied glass that has been placed upside down over a napkin on the polished countertop, and bring it back to my spot near the window. I open it up, just a crack, and can smell something chemical coming in on the wind. It might just be the salt from the sea. Sometimes an open window is enough to remind me that the world is larger than the limits of my own skin. I try to pull the air deep into my lungs but they don’t seem able to fully inflate. The tiny molecules get stuck on the way down; I can feel each one like a bead in my throat. There’s something wonderful, terrifying, about the flat vastness of water, how close it is to oblivion, and how it connects us all.

A few sips of the rum seem to stretch the time that is fitting too tightly around me. The grip loosens. I take off my socks using only my feet; having less touching my skin, that helps too.

I put my glass down and go lie next to Leora, moving her arms and turning her onto her side so that I can hold her body close. When she sleeps, she still seems like my baby, though it’s impossible to imagine how a human as big as she is ever grew inside of me. I created her from nothing and she’s not mine anymore. Her body has grown so long and taut, all the milky rolls of flesh gone — when did they go? — vanishing, with absolutely no mercy.

I have a dreadful sort of hope that after tomorrow, things will be different, and my brain somehow believes that different will be good even though every time change has happened to me it has left me disarmed. Change is never good. Change is out of my control. It’s hard to say what I even want, but whatever the outcome is, I suppose things will be different, because the decision will put an end to this limbo, where nothing is fixed and everything is possible. I would live in this limbo forever, though, for if tomorrow takes my daughter away then please let it never come.

Editorial Reviews

Praise for Let It Destroy You and Harriet Alida Lye
“A dextrous hand at mood and pace, Toronto writer Lye . . . examines idealism and ambition, intent and outcome, and, with particular acuity, marriage and the complex, unpredictable ways its faltering can play out.” —Toronto Star
“A complex and magnificent drama . . . Lye’s great achievement is the creation of two very different and fully realized first-person narrators, and her storytelling style luxuriates equally in their interiority and their extraordinary circumstances.” —Quill & Quire
“Reading Harriet Alida Lye’s prose is to be given the delicious gift of sinking deeper into the human experience. Let It Destroy You offers us this gift through the remarkable story of June and August, lovers fraught with passion and tension that comes alive on the page, as their pursuits of love and science collide spectacularly. This is a story of how the atomic bomb was born, but it’s also a tender and intelligent exploration of two people trying to understand who they are—and what they’re capable of—through the lens of one another, and the daughter they share. Lye’s singular observations about life and exquisite characterizing details tell us so much about a person, a moment, a feeling. This stunning novel cements her as one of my very favourite writers. Let It Destroy You is exceptional.” —Ashley Audrain, international bestselling author of The Push
“The paradox of loneliness in marriage, the shockwave of parental love—staged against history’s most devastating invention, the story of August and June Snow is a tender, anguished duet, glimmering with intelligence and grace.” — Sarah Henstra, Governor General's Award-winning author of The Red Word
“Let It Destroy You is a strikingly intimate novel with profound reverberations. August and June's love feels as touching as it is cruel, and their determination to protect their daughter will remind you of the staggering potential of science and our search for those little bursts of light in our darkest hours.” —Ellen Keith, bestselling author of The Dutch Wife

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