Seeking the truth about City 40

Paul O’Connor reviews a novel set in the 1950s in the Soviet Union, based on a real-life nuclear disaster, and finds it surprisingly entertaining.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE HALF LIFE OF VALERY K. By Natasha Pulley. Bloomsbury Publishing. 370 pages. $28, hardcover.

Fans of historical fiction get an extra discipline in The Half Life of Valery K, some very digestible nuclear physics, “digestible” being the pun here because this is the story of a very real nuclear accident that led to thousands of deaths from radiation exposure, some of it ingested.

In 1957, something bad happened at a uranium processing plant and scientific institute about 60 miles from the city of Chelyabinsk, Soviet Union. An explosion of some sort caused the release of a great deal of radiation, maybe as much as was released in the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in April 1986.

The Soviet government tried to hide the entire incident, releasing no information about it and refusing to warn nearby residents. Scientists descended on the scene, however, with the mission of studying the effects of radiation on humans, animals and plants, all in the hopes of finding what levels of radiation all could endure and which of these species were less effected.

It is into this historical landscape that British writer Natasha Pulley inserts her fictional characters and storylines.

Valery Kolkhanov is an esteemed Soviet scientist wasting away in the Gulag in 1963 when, one day, he is shepherded out of prison, escorted to an airplane and transferred to City 40, as the accident site and its research institute are called. Today, this is the city of Ozersk.

It turns out that Valery’s former mentor, a woman for whom he worked as an undergraduate during a Berlin internship before World War II, is conducting studies and needs his expertise. It was that contact with the outside world that got Valery K in trouble with the authorities in the first place. Exposure to anyplace non-Soviet was a serious offense in their minds.

Valery’s transition from inmate on a near starvation diet living in squalor to the relative affluence of his new position is, at times, beyond his ability to process. Simply having real coffee, a warm bed and some freedom of movement are foreign to him. Pulley’s description of Valery’s challenge is insightful.

Although Valery has been released from his prison, he is still considered an inmate. The local KGB officer informs him of security protocols and explains that, if he breaks them, he’ll be shot. In the first few chapters, the officer shoots a couple of people for breaching security.

Valery, having spent years in the Gulag, is ambivalent about life. He doesn’t see himself living very long, anyway, considering that his next four years will be on the site of a nuclear mishap or back in the Gulag. Also, he finds rules difficult to obey when they conflict with science.

Almost immediately, Valery begins seeking the truth of about the events at City 40 and what the institute is doing there. Simple scientific observations convince him that the official story is a lie. Chapter after chapter, he uncovers more about the accident and its residual effects. All lead to an exciting conclusion.

Pulley has done an excellent job with this novel. Her characters are strong and well crafted. She builds a storyline that leads the characters to take drastic action, a storyline that is both believable and captivating. She writes so clearly about the science involved that those readers without knowledge of the material will be able to understand.

The book is fun, if “fun” is the right word for a book about a radiation disaster.

On the minus side, Pulley’s British, so she spells a few words oddly and has some weird idioms, and in something I see too often in historical fiction, her denouement is bland. She’d have been better served to just end the book at the climax.

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