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Nora Gallagher's debut examines the dark genesis of the atom bomb and human creativity

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On the book-jacket blurb for Nora Gallagher's debut novel, Changing Light, Annie Dillard exclaims: "At last, a novel about something."

Indeed. This slim, tightly plotted love story is about art, faith, independence, science, the political dynamics of war and the Manhattan Project. It's a romance involving two distinctive characters whose paths accidentally intersect at the crossroads of modern history.

Leo Kavan, a physicist recently escaped from Czechoslovakia, has discovered the secret of neutron chain reaction and suspects that uranium will sustain the reaction. In an early scene in the book, Leo shares his theory with former professor Albert Einstein during a sunny afternoon meeting with Einstein at his Long Island home. Soon after, he is recruited by the ultra-secretive Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., and becomes one of the elite scientists whose work culminates in the World War II bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the terrifying debut of the nuclear age.

When Leo witnesses a fatal nuclear accident in the lab, he escapes through a hole in the hospital fence and, weakened by radiation poisoning, collapses on a riverbed in the rugged countryside. Eleanor Garrigue, a painter living in a nearby adobe house, finds Leo, drags him home and puts him to bed. Both Leo and Eleanor watch one another silently over the week of his recovery, wondering what secrets each harbors.

Gallagher, best known for two memoirs on finding a meaningful faith experience in the secular world, grew up in New Mexico and is familiar enough with the landscape to describe it with relative ease. Eleanor's purple Jemez Mountains and the black mesa that shields Los Alamos from Santa Fe become comforting, familiar sights. The scene in which the bomb is wrapped in a cocoon of blankets and transported over rutted dirt roads to a test site in the middle of the New Mexico desert is enough to make the soul quake.

There is a deceptive simplicity at play here: The pacing is terrific, and the characters' complexities are drawn in clear lines and brilliant colors, like a Georgia O'Keeffe painting. There can be no doubt that the character Eleanor, a refugee from New York City and in a claustrophobic marriage to a domineering older artist, is inspired by O'Keeffe, just as Leo is inspired by Hungarian scientist Leo Szilard, who patented chain reaction.

Gallagher is particularly adept at using flashback, a tricky and often disorienting literary maneuver, to fill in her characters' back stories, enriching them with history, family, career and community.

Father Bill, a Catholic priest in Santa Fe who has fallen in love with Eleanor, rounds out the trilogy of science, art and faith that Gallagher so cunningly explores in Changing Light. When Eleanor asks Leo, "What is physics, anyway?" he replies: "Physics is a battle for final truth."

At the end of the war, Gandhi said the atom bomb "resulted for the time being in destroying the soul of Japan. What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see." Nora Gallagher delicately explores that psychic wound in this luminous and deeply affecting novel.

kathryn@csindy.com

Nora Gallagher will speak at services at St. John's Cathedral, 1350 Washington St., Denver

Sunday, March 18, 9 a.m.

Call 303/831-7115 for more.

capsule

Changing Light

By Nora Gallagher

Pantheon Books

$22/hardcover

  • Nora Gallagher's debut examines the dark genesis of the atom bomb and human creativity

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