There are many good novels published that satisfy a reader, amuse and entertain, but nothing compares to the rare moment when you unearth a novel that catches hold of you, insinuates itself into your subconscious and takes root, refusing to let you go after the final page. ‘This Magnificent Desolation’ by Thomas O’Malley was one of these discoveries.
Duncan’s life was marked as different from the moment of his birth, in the centre of a storm so cold and violent that it robbed many of their lives. The harshness of the storm that laid waste to the celebrants on a bright, holiday train, freezing them where they sat, beating back the optimistic cheer of their final journey with the brutally realistic horror of life and death, bore Duncan into the world of this novel. This intrusion of the bleakest of realities follows Duncan as he comes of age in a world that has no soft edges in this atmospheric story of a boy finding his place in a complicated and difficult world.
This is a novel built of character and atmosphere. The harsh reality of Duncan’s abandonment at a local seminary and orphanage and his subsequent reconnection with his flawed and difficult mother as an older child, is balanced by the magic and mysticism of the internal world Duncan hides behind – a world where science meets angels, where the transcripts of the moon landings from which the title of the book is taken, become a devotional litany to a young boy searching for explanations for the losses he suffered, transporting him to a place where the people who both loved and failed him could live on, neither heaven nor hell, merely voices in the static of an old radio filling the loneliness of the night.
O’Malley’s characters, on the surface, should be difficult to like. Among them, Duncan’s mother, a damaged alcoholic who builds a history for them from penny postcards and lies to salve her broken conscience and Joshua, the shattered Vietnam veteran who can no more shed the psychological scars of the war than he can rid himself of the physical markings that brand him as different. It is O’Malley’s empathetic realisation of these people though, his ability to make the reader see what they are trying to be as well as who they are, to perceive not just their limitations but their aspirations, that instead bonds us to them in a way that persists long after the book is closed.
The world O’Malley creates in ‘This Magnificent Desolation’ is one that transcends time. Nominally, this story is set in the 1980s, a post-Vietnam world that, amongst the poor and the fractured, is a place where the war refuses to relinquish its grip despite the intercession of time. The atmosphere created by O’Malley’s prose though, could easily be that of post-Second World War America – the bar that Maggie sings in reminiscent of a 1950s dance hall, but as broken as its inhabitants, decaying in a world that it no longer has a place in. This reinforces the essential sense of otherness that lives in this novel, a sense that contributes to the dreadful beauty of the work.
‘This Magnificent Desolation’ is an easy work to read but a difficult one to categorise. From a novel that could be purely bleak, instead O’Malley elicits a kind of hope – not a simple, clean sense of optimism but a sense that, at least for Duncan, there may be some kind of happy ending ahead. What O’Malley leads us to understand is that there is a novel, more complex realisation of happiness than any conventional portrayal. For Duncan, that begins as he leaves me behind but I know that I will never truly leave Duncan behind, even as I close the book, sit back and breathe.