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Valery can think of all these possibilities and more in just seconds, and the novel continues in this way. Every character is attempting to read dangerous situations with insufficient evidence. Every character has to both speak in and decode the double-speak that is necessitated under the authoritarian government.

In 1963, in a Siberian gulag, 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 to avoid frostbite, and the right attitude toward the small pleasures of life so he won’t go insane. But on one ordinary day, all that changes: Valery’s university mentor steps in and sweeps Valery from the frozen prison camp to a mysterious unnamed town that houses a set of nuclear reactors and is surrounded by a forest so damaged it looks like the trees have rusted from within. Sverdlovsk was an ugly industrial city. Outside the airport, it was so warm that there was a misty rain glinting on the steps and the lamp posts and the bonnets of the taxis. There was no need for a coat, even. He was staring at the film of water moving under someone's windscreen wipers when the KGB lady hailed a taxi and put him in it.I have to be honest. I doubted my rating because the last part of the book suddenly made my brows knit together. But I loved the overall story so much and I’m in awe with the writing, and therefore just pushed the glorious five-star button! If anyone had told me I’d be mesmerized by a book about radiation and biochemistry and terms like curies, millicuries, plutonium and polonium, I’d have told them they were crazy. And yet, here I am, gushing about such a book! Still processing this, but I expect like other Natasha Pulley books, I will probably not ever finish processing it, so I might as well post now. Here goes, not totally processed, and partial and rambling. 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.

EDIT: Oh my god this book is finally out so I can talk shit about it! I read this months ago and still remember everything I despised with visceral clarity so here’s my rant. Major spoilers and TW for rape, war crimes, Nazi human experimentation. And oh the excuses Shenkov makes for him, "‘It wasn’t your fault. You were doing as you were told.’ throwing up. "You were just a child", I'm sorry but at nineteen you're not a kid, and if at nineteen your brain is developed enough to participate in human experimentations, then you're really not a kid. 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. Equating “mister” with “penis” seems quite ciscentric to me and that’s the absolute kindest interpretation I can think of (feel free to imagine the less kind ones). The other is that this is somehow some clumsy way of saying Valery doesn’t identify as a Man, but I think that might be giving a bit much credit.Also Pulley has this trend in her books where all her female characters are unemotional, ruthless, often despicable girlbosses because defying gender norms I guess, and this sometimes results in interesting characters (like the antagonist of this book, a shady scientist lady who is the only compelling character). But then she does this thing where she will violently bulldoze every single one of these women because they get in the way of the gay couple. The girl Valery had a crush on? Shot in the head by Sexy KGB Man! Sexy KGB Man’s wife? She has terminal cancer after being forced to work in the radiation-poisoned town by her husband’s predicament! Evil scientist lady? She meets a violent end too, but this I’m less mad about because at least she injected some menace into this stale ass book. OH and there’s also an entire train carriage of women who get raped to death in front of Valery, for the purposes of making Valery grow a spine (it’s literally so he has something heroic to do i.e. take revenge on the rapists by murdering them all, in an attempt to make the audience sympathise with him more. Reader, I did not like him more.)

This is part mystery, part history, and part love story. Unraveling the mystery serves as the largest layer of the story, with hints at the actual historical events, and whispers of the love story gently appearing during quiet moments and bold actions. Since I'm not a big fan of love stories, I appreciated how the author handled this component of the connection between Valery and Shenkov. It seemed genuine and artfully indicated. So. Uhm. This was an odd one. I felt it was too trunkated at times, like I didn't have enough time with the characters to really feel any attachment to them. Also, Pulley barely describes any surroundings and quite often I was surprised about where people were, that they suddenly had a car we had never heard of, or they were standing up when I thought they were sitting down - or the reverse! It threw me off quite a few times.one lonely middle-aged man (46 M) meets another lonely middle-aged man (51 M) and together find peace for the first time in their lives While Chernobyl may be the first incident that comes to mind when someone thinks about nuclear disasters in the 20th century, this event actually had a precursor in the USSR: the "Kyshtym disaster" of 1957. Basing her novel The Half Life of Valery K on this event, author Natasha Pulley's fictional "City 40" is modeled on Chelyabinsk-40, or as it is known today, Ozersk. Caught between the requirements of the Communist state and his own conscience, Valery embarks on the most desperate gamble of his life. Can he and Shenkov escape City 40? At what cost? Together, they confront an imminent man-made disaster and inhuman scientific experiments while finding in each other those things they thought were lost — hope, love and redemption. The Half Life of Valery K is a vivid evocation of the Cold War era with a plausible premise, beautifully rendered characters, clever dialogue, well-researched science and a satisfying ending. Readers should make space on the bookshelf and return to this deeply human story again and again... continued plus the very idea of pairing a Gulag prisoner & a KGB agent? and the Gulag prisoner working in his youth on literal human experiments run by nazis? pulley did handle it with as much grace as she could i guess, but uhh... that is a Choice! 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.

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).For a story set in the USSR, and very much steeped in and dependent on the bureaucracy and fear of that regime, to see random things like someone "taking the piss" or referring to a carpet that had just been "hoovered" or someone being assigned to do the "washing up" of test tubes, etc... these things just caught me up and took me out of the story and made me remember that I'm reading a British woman's book and not experiencing the situation along with the characters. Finally, the last thorn in my side with this book: Natasha Pulley is British. And it shows. There were so many Britishisms sprinkled throughout this book that it completely ruined the flow for me whenever I would run into one of them. Like navigating a set of stairs and thinking that there's one more step than there actually is, and feeling that momentary disorientation associated with the expected being yanked out from under your foot. if i look sad, it’s because this is the happiest i’ve been for years, and you did that, but you aren’t even one tenth mine and you never will be.” I wanted more of the kids , I wanted more of the women because atleast if the men were not only morally depraved but horribly characterised there would be something for me to latch on but no.... Setting aside her usual magical realism, Natasha Pulley tries her hand at straight-up historical fiction with The Half Life of Valery K, a novel set in Soviet Russia during the time of the Cold War.

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