Three hopeful souls from different worlds hesitantly confront their destinies in Californian Gallagher’s earnest, carefully patterned debut.
The setting is the New Mexico desert during the summer of 1945, when the top secret Los Alamos project undertakes to adapt fissionable material to create a bomb capable of ending the World War II. Czech scientist Leo Kavan, motivated by fears for the safety of his sister Lotte (a concentration camp victim), wanders distractedly away from the Project’s confines following an accident in which his best friend received a lethal exposure to radiation. Gifted painter Eleanor Garrigue, retreating from her loveless marriage into the arms of a dictatorial older man, luxuriates in the revivifying, stimulating beauty of her chosen new home—and offers it as sanctuary to the injured stranger (Leo) she encounters nearby, waiting patiently to learn his name and history. And local priest Bill Taylor cherishes his secret love for Eleanor, a love his duties prevent him from declaring. Gallagher shifts the focus among this trio’s present interrelations and separate stories, also sketching in a capsule history of 20th-century research science and introducing such crucially involved characters as Leo’s colleagues and superiors, Eleanor’s pragmatic cleaning woman Griefa and Los Alamos insider David Stein, whose motivation—and loyalties—remain enigmatic until the final pages. This commendably ambitious novel is insistently readable, energized by lush descriptions of southwestern vistas and efficiently dramatized historical materials. But its character portrayal is uneven (Bill Taylor is barely a presence until very late in the book) and the degree to which its principals embody the spheres of science, religion and art is much too neat. The dénouement, in which Leo “escapes” to warn the world of the dangers being unleashed, comes perilously close to being a pacifist tract.
Still, a vivid, thoughtful book that earns the reader’s attention and respect. And the story of Los Alamos cannot be told too often.