Reviewed by Gerard Healy
This interesting novel, by Natasha Pulley, is set in Russia in 1963. The story begins in a Siberian gulag in winter where Valery, or zek (prisoner) 745 as he’s known, has spent six years of his ten-year sentence. Through his scientific knowledge, personality and ruthless actions, he has a relatively privileged position. He’s not in the mines anyway, which is a slow and painful death sentence. Valery is a biochemist and it turns out that his specialty of nuclear radiation research on animals is in demand in a secretive city.
This city, Chelyabinsk 40, is home to thousands of scientists and workers but is a closely-guarded secret. Head of Security is KGB officer Konstantin Shenkov, a most unusual man and he and Valery form an unusual duo as the story unfolds. The other important character is Dr Rosa Resovskaya, who was Valery’s University mentor many years ago. She is now in charge of a research lab at this secretive facility and it is on her recommendation that Valery has been released from the camp.
Most of the story takes place in the rather strange world of City 40. Strange because it’s virtually unknown by everyone outside and great efforts are made to keep it that way. It is also odd because everyone is monitored and watched by the KGB and so trusting others is a tricky matter.
The other abnormal factor is that the radiation levels are dangerously high in the surrounding countryside. Valery grows suspicious of the official version of events and especially the official radiation readings after his unofficial readings contradict these. However, voicing a concern about these matters is inviting attention from the KGB. So anyone with doubts faces the choice of an uncomfortable silence or risking prison or worse.
One of the ironies that Valery is aware of is that City 40 is a dream placement for a biochemist investigating nuclear radiation on animals. Unlike the usual laboratory setup, where he has to measure minute amounts of radiation on mice, here he has dozens of animals in the wild exposed to massive amounts of radiation. You’d imagine that the scientist in him would be struggling with his humanitarian side to take advantage of this situation.
The structure of the story involves several flashbacks to earlier times in Valery’s life. We learn that he was sent to Berlin in 1937 by the party as a nineteen-year-old graduate. His mentor was the same Rosa Resovskaya who came to his aid years later. Rising political tensions between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia made for an interesting background to this experience. However, having been in the West makes him a target years later.
Then in 1957, comes his arrest, sentencing and transportation to the Siberian prison. The scene in the Lubyanka where Valery pleads guilty to whatever charges he’s facing, without knowing what those charges are is grimly absurd. He does it to avoid torture, which will see him confess anyway. It’s a window into the persecution of millions of Russians.
Several of Pulley’s other novels are set in the 19th Century and some of the scenes in this novel, although happening in the 20th century, could easily be from this earlier period. I’m thinking of the prison camp in particular with its grim regime and dehumanising procedures.
Is Valery a flawed hero? One of the tensest scenes in the story is when we find out the backstory to Valery’s prison tattoos. It involves his experiences on the long train journey from Moscow to Siberia in a crowded compartment of fellow prisoners. Valery is witness to brutal acts that he feels powerless at the time to prevent. However, he doesn’t forget.
For the technically minded, there’s a fascinating section on the various units that radiation is measured in (roentgen, millicuries, rem, etc). Pulley has the gift of easing us through heavy subjects like nuclear physics with a light touch. The scientific details sound authentic.
One feature I liked was how immersed I became in the alien world of Soviet Russia during the Cold War. The government believes a nuclear attack by America is a real possibility, so wants to know what the effects of radiation would be. If a remote city can be a real-life test and thousands suffer, well so be it for the greater good. The catch is no-one must know about it, so the scientists and other workers are gagged. Ultimately, they’re expendable.
Pulley has the skill of creating a believable society of scientists undertaking important work for the state, while some are wrestling with larger questions. The KGB man Shenkov was rather more difficult to believe. Pulley gives him a heart in spite of his years of training under the ruthless eyes of a repressive organ of the state. Initially cast as the tough menacing hand of the state, he develops a humanitarian streak through interacting with Valery.
I would certainly recommend this interesting and engaging book for its depiction of unusual characters struggling to survive in an unusual world.
Natasha Pulley was born in 1988 and now lives in Bristol, England. Her first novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (2016) was a Sunday Times bestseller and won a Betty Trask award. She’s also published The Bedlam Stacks, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow and The Kingdoms. She teaches at Bath Spa University and has lived in Peru, China and Japan.
The Half Life of Valery K
by Natasha Pulley
ISBN: 978 140888 521 5