The Half-Life of Valery K Book Review by Natasha Pulley



After sprucing up the 19th century with alternate histories and fantastical developments in four earlier novels, beginning with his best-selling debut, “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley bases her latest work on a real event from the 20th century. “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 so readable and popular, Pulley also delivers a hard-hitting study of how a police state warps individual psychology, personal relationships, and professional ethics.

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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 research facility, he tells Shenkov that he assumed he had been chosen as a disposable enemy of the state to die “of radiation during a test on the ‘man “. Valéry, who quickly 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 best friend’s name missing from the list of people he was required to report, because it meant she had reported him first and was safe.

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But Valéry is not as pragmatic as he thinks. He soon 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 poisonous river. He gets away with a warning from Shenkov, but a colleague who shares his concern is not so lucky. When he asks why she was suddenly sent back to Moscow, Resovskaya snaps: “You need learn to speak in code. [She] tried to call a reporter… and Shenkov had to shoot him. Valery has a hard time not telling the truth, even though he knows it could be fatal, and he’s particularly bad at hiding his apprehensions from Shenkov. 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 carries out his often murderous duties “because otherwise a psychopath would”; he strives to save those he can. He helps Valery find out what is really going on in City 40 as he fears the effect of radiation on his four children and his wife, Anna, a nuclear physicist who has had three miscarriages. The compelling and ghastly Resovskaya, whose cold-blooded pursuit of her scientific goals drives the plot, predominates in Pulley’s lively cast. She describes the injection of radioactive material into human 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.

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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 virtually unheard of in capitalist countries, and Valery also makes some tart observations about Western social inequality at the end of 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.

Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theater and America, 1931-1940”.

The half-life of Valery K

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