On one hand, there are artistic considerations that must be borne in mind by every author; on the other, historical facts, though they may be bent, must be adhered to without their breaking.
In “Changing Light,” essayist Nora Gallagher sets her pen to this task, with mixed results.
A love story centered around the atomic bomb, “Changing Light” is a novel of historical fiction that clearly emphasizes the fiction. In its best moments, the novel is a poignant meditation on the unintended consequences of war.
In its worst, it reads like a tawdry melodrama. Leo Kavan, a Czechoslovakian emigre and neutron physicist, is part of an elite cadre of scientists who hold the fate of thousands in their hands.
At the secret Manhattan Project compound outside of Los Alamos, N.M., Kavan is assigned to calculate the “critical mass” of uranium – just the amount necessary in order to detonate an atomic bomb. Driven by love for his sister, held prisoner in a German concentration camp, Kavan throws himself into his work in the hope that it will bring a faster end to the war. But when his best friend’s tragic death in a lab accident reveals to Kavan the consequences of his work, his conscience is awakened.
“He had seen his theory made real and he had reveled,” writes Gallagher, “in the power it gave him. Until he had seen, just precisely, what was to come, what would be unleashed, what would fly from the box they had opened.”
Frightened by the destructive power of the bomb, Leo attempts to flee the Project. When he is discovered in the New Mexico desert, unconscious and barely alive, by the Georgia O’Keefe-esque artist Eleanor Garrigue, both their lives are forever altered by the burden Kavan must carry.
As they come to be drawn together, the reader realizes that they are both in the business of “changing light” – whether it be by mixing paints or splitting atoms.In her first novel, Gallagher has the makings
of a classic story. What stands in its way seems mostly to be her inexperience as a fiction writer. Though she writes with the skill of a promising new author, Gallagher too often falls victim to the pretensions of a much older writer.
The result is uneven prose filled with half-believable characters and unbelievable dialogue.
Gallagher is at her best when describing
the landscape of her native New Mexico. Nevertheless, “Changing Light” is a book worth reading – a love story that strives to be something more. As we are once again faced with a prolonged war and the moral ambiguity of the choices it forces us to make, the dilemma of Kavan seems all too contemporary.
Indeed, one might even be tempted to label Gallagher’s “Changing Light” as part of a new genre: ahistorical fiction, current in all times of moral uncertainty.
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.