This Magnificent Desolation
Thomas O'Malley
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Buy *This Magnificent Desolation* by Thomas O'Malleyonline

This Magnificent Desolation
Thomas O'Malley
Bloomsbury Usa
416 pages
March 2013
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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With its story of love, fear, friendship and family bonds, O’Malley’s ode to dreams is heartbreaking, bittersweet and captivating. Told from the perspective of ten-year-old Duncan, this languid, somber novel moves between the past and the present, from the depths of the dark Minnesota countryside to San Francisco’s inner bowery. It’s an ambitious range that O’Malley manages well as he builds a comprehensive picture of his characters and their passions.

Infusing his story with many poetic sequences, O’Malley poses a “what if” scenario connecting the notion of a failed Apollo moon landing with the backdrop of a Minnesota winter in 1970. A terrible ice storm pushes and heaves its indeterminate way across the pastureland of Stockholdt County, freezing many of the poverty-stricken inhabitants to death and sabotaging the journey of the famous Holiday Train.

With the ice roiling like "a twisting, living thing," Duncan’s mother, Maggie Bright, suddenly appears in the snow, reaching the Capuchin Monastery alive, her journey of survival a portent for something divine. Within the monastery’s stone walls and mortared, gardened depths, the kindly priests receive Duncan into their shelter. Growing older night after night, amid the constant low hum of prayer, Father Tobin tells Duncan to trust in faith and that “God is in everything around you.”

Realizing he has no power to alter the past, Duncan is seduced by the strange and shifting light of the moon’s cratered surface, in which he’s convinced lie the faces of his mother and the dead children of the Holiday Train. But this is Maggie’s story as much as it is her son’s. Classically trained as a coloratura soprano, reaching notes rarely recorded before, Maggie takes Duncan to live with her in San Francisco, where her raggedy yet strangely beautiful voice fills her large, crumbling Victorian mansion.

Nothing but joy and fear work upon Maggie's bitter failures, often making Duncan happy for all that has been lost between them. While Maggie’s long-term partner, Joshua, a self-destructive Vietnam vet, welcomes her back with open arms, Duncan must still cope with his mother’s haunting descent into alcoholism.

Opera as an art form aspires to the sublime unison of drama and music, and this novel aspires to be operatic in scope and structure. Duncan’s vivid imagination is central to the story, just as Maggie’s secrets will shape her son's future. The earth turns through its meridians and darkness spins through the stars as Duncan imagines his body disintegrated, reduced, and thrust out into the cosmos where Michael Collins, his father, and all the other lost astronauts wait in limbo.

Although the story contains no big revelations and the tone is at times leaden, the injection of place infuses the tale with much emotion. O’Malley makes this " magnificent desolation" all work--the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s a vivid, provocative perspective that allows the reader to be a participant in Duncan, Maggie and Joshua’s most intimate moments.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2013

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