Book World: Natasha Pulley delivers a historical thriller with intellectual weight

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After sprucing up the 19th century with alternate histories and fantastical developments in four previous novels, beginning with her best-selling debut, “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street,” Natasha Pulley bases her latest work on an actual 20th-century event. “The Half-Life of Valery K” stems from a 1957 nuclear explosion in the Soviet Union, which caused deadly dangerous levels of radiation in the atmosphere, and the subsequent cover-up by the Soviet government. Showcasing all the storytelling skills that made his previous books readable and popular, Pulley offers a piercing study of how a police state warps individual psychology, personal relationships, and professional ethics.

Valery Kolkhanov had been a prisoner in a Siberian labor camp for six years when he was summoned in 1963 to City 40, “a nature reserve” in western Russia. The area was deliberately exposed to radioactive contamination, says project manager Elena Resovskaya, so that the effects of radiation on an ecosystem can be studied and species that develop resistance to it identified. Resovskaya asked Valery, who went to college with her in the 1930s, as he was a radiation biochemist before his arrest. He will serve the remainder of his 10-year sentence as a “prisoner scientist”, KGB security chief Konstantin Shenkov told him.

This unexpected assignment relieves Valéry. Seeing the irradiated desolation on his way to the facility, he tells Shenkov, he assumed he had been chosen as a disposable enemy of the state to die “from radiation in a human trial.” Valéry, who confessed to all the absurd accusations made against him in 1957, has no illusions about the nature of the Soviet system, nor does he expect others to behave better than him; he was relieved to see his friend’s name missing from the list of people he was required to report, as it meant she had reported him first and was safe.

But Valéry is not as pragmatic as he thinks. He notices suspicious irregularities in the data provided by Resovskaya that suggest radiation levels are much higher than indicated, and he warns the residents of the nearby town that their children are swimming in a toxic river. He gets away with a warning from Shenkov, but a colleague who shares his concern is not so lucky. When asked why she was suddenly sent back to Moscow, Resovskaya replies, “You have to learn to speak in code. (She) tried to call a reporter… and Shenkov had to shoot him. Valery struggles with not telling the truth, even though he knows it could be fatal. Scattered comments, ambiguous emotional expressions, and glimpses of Valery’s past are deftly used by Pulley to make it clear that Valery is gay in a society where it’s a criminal offense and that his feelings for Shenkov run dangerously warm.

The KGB officer is one of many three-dimensional characters who give Pulley’s narrative a human edge as he hurtles through one gruesome revelation after another to a climax of bravery (albeit implausible). Shenkov performs his murderous duties “because otherwise a psychopath would”; he strives to save those he can. He helps Valery find out what is happening in City 40 because he fears the effect of radiation on his children and his wife, Anna, a nuclear physicist who has had three miscarriages. Preeminent in Pulley’s vivid cast is the compelling and ghastly Resovskaya, whose cold-blooded pursuit of her scientific goals drives the plot. She describes the injection of radioactive materials into subjects as “the most urgent and important clinical trial in the Soviet Union”, and she justifies every inhumane action by claiming that Americans are doing – or will do – the same things.

Any Western reader inclined to dismiss this type of behavior as limited to the Soviet Union should think again when it is revealed that City 40’s radioactive soil comes from improperly disposed nuclear waste. “Before, we used tanks, with cooling systems,” explains Anna. “But when one of the cooling systems failed, the cost of replacing it was estimated to be very high, and physicists were asked to reassess whether it was necessary.” Safety procedures ignored or violated due to financial considerations are hardly unheard of in capitalist countries, and Valery makes some harsh observations about social inequalities in the novel.

Pulley’s broad perspective distinguishes his work from that of more routine thriller writers. Dotted with memorable characters and deepened by its exploration of thorny moral issues, “The Half Life of Valery K” captures popular entertainment with enjoyable intellectual weight.

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