I’ve enjoyed Nora Gallagher’s memoirs — Things Seen and Unseen and Practicing Resurrection — so much that I was almost hesitant about picking up her debut novel. There are some writers — Anne Lamott is the one who springs first to mind — who are such brilliant nonfiction writers that their novels, while still good, pale by comparison, as if the vividness of the writer’s first-person voice can’t quite be transferred to a fictional character. (The reverse, of course, is also true — brilliant novelists whose memoirs or other nonfiction works lack the power of their fiction. How many writers are brilliant at both? I can’t think of any offhand). I was afraid Nora Gallagher might be in the same category. After reading Changing Light, which I did enjoy very much, I’m still not sure. It’s a very good novel, but I’m not sure it has the power and immediacy of her memoirs.
The writing has the same keen observation of both the natural world and the human heart that characterizes Gallagher’s nonfiction. Many of the same spiritual themes, as well as a love of Anglican liturgy and the sacraments, appear in this novel too. The novel, set in 1945, tells the story of Eleanor, a New York artist trying to rediscover her muse in New Mexico; Bill, the Anglican priest at whose church she finds spiritual solace, and Leo, a European Jewish scientist involved in the project to research and develop the atomic bomb.
This book was the first of an unintentional trilogy I read — three books in a row, each of which introduced me to some aspect of the second world war that I had previously known little or nothing about. The glimpses in this book into the top-secret world of the Manhattan Project were far more intriguing than I expected them to be. Leo Kavan is a fictional character whom Gallagher describes as a composite of several different physicists who worked on the bomb; other (minor) characters are historical, including Albert Einstein. Kavan’s growing unease over the moral implications of the project provide the emotional core of the novel.
The novel ends with the dropping of the bomb and the various characters’ reactions to that event. Many plot threads, especially those involving relationships among the characters, are left unresolved here, but that, though frustrating, is appropriate to a novel which is short, spare, and focused on a single narrow moment in history — a moment that was to have enormous impact on the world. Though I never felt as intimately drawn in to this novel as I did to Gallagher’s memoirs, I thought it was beautifully written and learned a lot from reading it.