The Half Life of Valery K, the fifth novel by British author, Natasha Pulley, is a compelling story told in a conventional way. It is based on real events — a Chernobyl-like nuclear disaster and subsequent cover-up in rural Russia in 1957 — and fills in the blanks with a plot, and characters, that teeter between darkly plausible and science fictional (so far, so Soviet).
Valery Kolkhanov has spent years in a Siberian gulag, cultivating ways to keep his spirit alive (“the way to not die was to look forward to things … the tinier the better”), but not too alive (“it was dangerous to start wanting things”). He is summoned one morning on a “transfer order”, and fears the worst, but to his surprise is taken by plane, then private taxi, to a lab in a fenced-off town, deep in a forest. A nuclear expert, he has already worked out that this land is “sick” with radiation (he’s seen “skeletons of burnt-out houses”, “gingery ruins” of dead trees, and a factory whose rafters are “poking through the roof like ribs”) but the extent and cause of this radiation are not clear, nor is his reason for being here. Perhaps the most ominous marker of all is the presence of “ordinary people doing ordinary-people things”.
Effects of radiation
The book is a mystery with three main players: Kolkhanov’s former teacher, who has summoned him here and tasked him with studying the effects of radiation on animals, an unusually principled KGB officer with whom Valery develops a friendship, and Valery himself.
Pulley’s clear, detailed writing style, along with the many-pronged span of this novel keeps the pages turning. The story is interesting, but the storytelling is somewhat bland. Valery is your typical blinkered genius: a character whose naivety (years in a gulag have left large holes in his knowledge) paired with supernatural intelligence, serves the plot but feels like a trope. There is also a love story wedged awkwardly in, along with some forced references to gender politics. And while the book’s attempts to capture the paranoia of living behind the Iron Curtain are adequate — rooms are bugged, characters speak in code, and so on — the prose never mimics this paranoia, and we don’t feel quite as mired in layers of deception as we should. The stakes bear only the illusion of grandeur. The mystery isn’t all that mysterious. Problems resolve themselves neatly. Far too neatly.