Thomas O’Malley’s second novel takes its title from astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s words describing stepping onto the moon: ‘Magnificent desolation’.
It is a fitting sentiment for a story which finds little Duncan Bright collected from an orphanage by his mother, only to lose her again shortly afterwards.
The words of the Apollo mission astronaut pepper O’Malley’s narrative, ostensibly because young Duncan finds comfort in their story. But This Magnificent Desolation is not about astronauts. It charts Duncan’s doomed relationships in a landscape designed only to scupper its inhabitants. Such a dystopia is fiercely reminiscent of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.
This Magnificent Desolation’s primary topic is waste: of talent, of love and of aspiration. Duncan’s mother Maggie lives in the past, where she was one of the most promising opera singers of her generation. Joshua, Duncan’s surrogate father figure, is trapped psychologically in the Vietnam War he managed to survive and, literally, in the tunnels he now builds for a living.
There is something fundamental about this novel; the best bits are the most visceral. As when Maggie sings too high, searching for former notes: "From Mother’s right nostril a bubble of blood suddenly blooms and then bursts and trickles slowly down to her mouth." Such moments are where O’Malley’s prose really shines. Yet such is the constant onslaught of suffering that your empathy is dulled. By the end, when another life is snuffed out, it’s difficult to feel anything at all.