Love, physics and the atomic bomb come together in this month’s Southwest Book Review of Nora Gallagher’s novel, Changing Light. The setting is Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1945; the tail end of World War II and the debut of the atomic bomb. Two characters haphazardly find each other: one love sick and one radiation sick. Their bond takes them into passionate—and dangerous—territory. KNAU’s Mary Sojourner has more.
The New Mexico morning light is soft. Eleanor Garrigue, an artist seeking personal sanctuary near Los Alamos, finishes tilling the dirt in her garden and goes back into the house. An unknown man lies near-unconscious in her spare bedroom. It is March 1945. Soon, Germany will surrender and only a much-diminished Japan will stand between America and world peace.
Changing Light, under Nora Gallagher’s deft touch, is a powerful story of love between Eleanor and the unknown man; the courage that both of them bring to trying to stop the nightmare that the man, physicist Leo Kavan has foreseen; and the inexorable progression that J. Robert Oppenheimer’s team of physicists make toward the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She carries us, with restraint and rich imagery, from the delicate light of northern New Mexico, to the searing flash that destroyed two Japanese cities on August 6, 1945.
Leo Kavan has learned first-hand about the horror that the work at Los Alamos is going to create. When a slip-up in one of the labs results in Kavan and two other scientists being exposed to deadly radiation, he knows that he has to stop the bomb from being dropped. He flees the lab, radiation sickness already in him and finds himself at Eleanor Garrigue’s door. They open up to each other. Eleanor, despite her fears for her brother in a Japanese POW camp, becomes drawn not just to Leo, but his mission.
The lovers are aided in their plan by Griefa, a strong fair-minded local woman. They find themselves in danger from an innocent mistake made by the local Catholic priest and the quite intentional pursuit of an FBI agent—who may not be what he seems. Gallagher’s peripheral characters are fully as vital as Eleanor and Leo. Her gift for writing the New Mexico earth and sky that contain them is faithful to that spare beautiful land.
When so much contemporary fiction is filled with what seem to be literary selfies, often so obscurely personal that a reader is hard pressed to find the story, Gallagher works as the omniscient narrator, a detached, yet passionate observer, a vehicle for not just her characters, but the greater story. She weaves facts with the slow-growing radiance of Eleanor’s and Leo’s love. She writes unflinchingly of eerie coincidence, dangerous research and the tragic belief that in order to save lives, hundreds of thousands of others had to die by atomic bomb.