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The Half Life of Valery K

por Natasha Pulley

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25715106,472 (4.08)15
In 1963, in a Siberian prison, former nuclear specialist Valery Kolkhanov has mastered what it takes to survive: the right connections to the guards for access to food and cigarettes, the right pair of warm boots, and the right attitude toward the small pleasures of life so he won't go insane. But one day, all that changes: Valery's university mentor steps in and sweeps him from the frozen camp to a mysterious unnamed city. It houses a set of nuclear reactors, and surrounding it is a forest so damaged it looks like the trees have rusted from within. In City 40, Valery is Dr. Kolkhanov once more, and he's expected to serve out his prison term studying the effect of radiation on local animals. But as Valery begins his work, he is struck by the questions his research raises. Why is there so much radiation in this area? What, exactly, is being hidden from the thousands who live in the town? And if he keeps looking for answers, will he live to serve out his sentence?… (mais)
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Valery ( fysicus) heeft jaren in Siberië in een strafkamp gezeten maar wordt overgeplaatst naar Stad 40. Daar onderzoekt hij het effect van straling op dieren in de omgeving. Sjenkov is van KGB en werkt ook in Stad 40.
In het verhaal gebeuren er mooie dingen zoals de vriendschap/liefde die tussen deze 2 mannen ontstaat, de pogingen die ze wederzijds doen om elkaar uit de ellende te halen. Hun compassie voor de slachtoffers die overal te vinden zijn in en rond de stad. Allemaal tamelijk willens en wetens blootgesteld aan straling om maar te kunnen onderzoeken wat dat doet met plant, mens en dier.
Uiteindelijk ontsnappen ze samen met zo’n 100 inwoners van een besmet dorp en krijgen ze asiel (en elkaar) in Engeland.
De wreedheid van het Sovjet regime is helder en de onverschilligheid die mensen die er leven en werken noodgedwongen ontwikkelen is schokkend en mooi beschreven. Wel vind ik verhaal soms wat te technisch en onwaarschijnlijk. ( )
  vuurziel | May 24, 2024 |
The Half Life of Valery K is a book I came across shortly after a friend mentioned a woman, a scientist, who discovered radioactive contamination revealing a secret nuclear contamination. She didn’t mention the woman’s name, so when I saw this book’s title, I thought it might be about her. It’s not. Valery is a man.

Valery Kolkhanov was a political prisoner in a Siberian labor camp whose early action at the camp gave him much-needed privileges that kept him alive, barely. Suddenly, he is shipped elsewhere without any explanation. However, even before his arrival, he deduced there had been a nuclear event of some kind just based on the dying trees and vegetation. Perhaps he was going to be a test subject contaminated by radiation and observed while his organs melt.

Good news, though. He was requested by Elena Resovskaya, his former mentor, in order to assist her in her research, as a scientist, not a subject. She explains they are studying the effect of radiation on species to see if there are some adaptive species who resist radiation better than others and why that might be.

He also has a distrustful encounter with Konstantin Shenkov, the KGB security chief in charge of the facility, one that results in his arm getting broken by Shenkov who seems truly remorseful, if that is possible. Valery soon learns that his every word and deed is monitored as are those of everybody else. People learn what can and cannot be said and how to say what cannot be said by saying something else. If that sounds complicated, no one said living in a secret Soviet research facility at the height of the Cold War was easy.

Complicating the matter are things that Valery discovers that lead him to revise his thoughts about his mentor and about Shenkov, especially about Shenkov. They and the writer Pulley dance around the feelings they have as though Soviet spies are watching over her shoulder as she types. It’s extremely effective and a smart decision as a writer. It enhances that feeling of claustrophobia that people in that situation must have felt.

Having just read one of the best books of 2023 before this and considering I began The Half Life of Valery K under a mistaken assumption, it came through as another of the best books I have read this year. I loved how Valery slowly went from gratitude to appalled horror with Resovskaya and from fear to deep regard for Shenkov.

Valery is brilliant and regards himself as deeply pragmatic, but he doesn’t know himself as well as he thinks he does. He is an idealist and there is no place for an idealist in Brezhnev’s U.S.S.R. The triangle between Resovskaya, Valery, and Shenkov rises to a crisis and the resolution has a bit of a madcap implausibility to it, but then an entire secret city where there has been a secret nuclear contamination is implausible and it happened.

The Half Life of Valery K at Bloomsbury
Natasha Pulley

https://tonstantweaderreviews.wordpress.com/2023/12/30/the-half-life-of-valery-k... ( )
  Tonstant.Weader | Dec 30, 2023 |
This is beautifully written, and I loved the characterization of Valery and Shenkov. The facts about radiation were just about graspable, even for me.

Highly recommended. ( )
  pgchuis | Jun 9, 2023 |
Although based on the story of this little reported irradiated city in the former Soviet Union, Pulley delivers another fabulous character driven novel that gets better and better as you get into it. Through Valery’s difficult experiences and inner voice we get a vibrant picture of the fears, suspicions and bravery of scientists ( but others too) who cared for truth and basic humanity in that era. Despite the sometimes brutal reality of his story, Valery brings a wry humor to observations about the system and the people he encounters, so the book offers some glimpses of lightness and inspiration with its picture of mixed morality. ( )
  Aronfish | Feb 20, 2023 |
Well written book but scary subject ( )
  kakadoo202 | Jan 10, 2023 |
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For Claire, Larry, and Jacob, who put up with me telling them pointless facts about nuclear physics for the whole of lockdown
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Possibly because French made it sound fancy and respectable, the wake-up call for the prisoners was called reveille.
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I keep hearing all this about radiation, but frankly, comrade, if I can't see it and it doesn't bite, I'm not that worried.
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In 1963, in a Siberian prison, former nuclear specialist Valery Kolkhanov has mastered what it takes to survive: the right connections to the guards for access to food and cigarettes, the right pair of warm boots, and the right attitude toward the small pleasures of life so he won't go insane. But one day, all that changes: Valery's university mentor steps in and sweeps him from the frozen camp to a mysterious unnamed city. It houses a set of nuclear reactors, and surrounding it is a forest so damaged it looks like the trees have rusted from within. In City 40, Valery is Dr. Kolkhanov once more, and he's expected to serve out his prison term studying the effect of radiation on local animals. But as Valery begins his work, he is struck by the questions his research raises. Why is there so much radiation in this area? What, exactly, is being hidden from the thousands who live in the town? And if he keeps looking for answers, will he live to serve out his sentence?

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