The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley

Review by Annabel

It was wonderful to discover that Natasha Pulley had a new novel published last month, I’ve been a fan since the beginning and have reviewed her first three for Shiny here, here and here. Her first and third novels, the latter being a sequel to the first, are steampunky Victorian adventures, with increasing hints of time travel and fantasy coming to the fore. Her second set slightly before the first travels to South America with plant hunters and is imbued with strong native magic. Her fourth, re-envisaged the Battle of Trafalgar, with time travel.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, that her latest novel is set in 1963, and the initial setting is a Siberian gulag where we meet Valery K, six years into his sentence of ten – when he’s told he is being transferred to another facility. He’s cleaned up and accompanied by a KGB lady on a plane, then a long drive onwards to a secret town called Chelyabinsk 40. As they approach the town through the forest and see blasted houses and dead trees, a sign says:

ATTENTION: DO NOT STOP FOR THE FOLLOWING 30KM. PROCEED AT THE FASTEST POSSIBLE SPEED FOR YOUR VEHICLE.

On arrival at the site, Valery is given the lowdown by the head of security, KGB officer Shenkov, (who will become a key character, and ironically, Valery’s close friend, even though he could be ordered to shoot Valery at any time).  He is whisked off to the labs, where he is reunited with Dr Resovskaya, who had been his supervisor during his undergrad year out in Berlin when he was nineteen and the Nazis were on the rise. Now, she had requested his help, for Valery is a nuclear scientist, specialising in the biological effects of radiation.

Valery has to report to Shenkov daily, but otherwise he is free to move around the secret town in the middle of nowhere. He’s finding it difficult to adjust as you might imagine,

People made conversation by asking after your family, or home, or your last job, or if you’d been watching the ice hockey; he couldn’t speak to any of that. He didn’t mind, but it was awkward to have to say, actually I was starving to death last week and I had a rat called Boris.

He hoped someone was looking after Boris.

He’s not long into investigating the radiation levels outside when it becomes obvious to him that something is not right at all; they’re sky-high in places, and the residents of Chelyabinsk 40 are being lied to about the levels, and as Valery will discover, people are dying, some fast, some slowly, but the deaths are all denied, as was the KGB way.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the scientific term ‘half-life’ refers to the time for half of the nuclei of a radioactive material to decay, i.e., transform into another substance by emitting radioactive particles or rays. The most pernicious constituent of nuclear fallout is strontium-90, which has a half-life of nearly 29 years, and because it is in the same group as calcium, is attracted to the bones of the exposed where it continues to eject beta-particles that cause radiation injury. On Valery’s first venture outside into the forest to measure Sr-90 concentrations, he explains all this to Shenkov when obtaining his pass.

Naturally, Pulley is using the term ‘half life’ in her title (no hyphen, note) in more than just the scientific meaning. You can contrive a proverbial pun, ‘half a life is better than none’ and Valery, after his experience in the gulag where he hadn’t expected to survive his ten years, is coming to believe that maybe it is, but extrapolated, why settle for just half? Valery’s findings become increasingly dangerous, and inexplicably at first, Shenkov shelters him.

If Valery, Shenkov and his wife Anna whom we meet later represent the non-conformist side of the Soviet coin, Dr Resovskaya is the other, definitely old school. As a woman scientist, she had to toe the line religiously under Stalin to survive, and reminded me of Fleming’s Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love as portrayed by Lotte Lenya in the 1963 James Bond movie.

You can’t help but love Valery, who has had a hard half-life so far as a closeted humanitarian radical in Stalin’s world. I also liked Shenkov, who has to carry out awful and gruesome tasks on occasion but carries on in order to protect his family. The increasing friendship between him and Valery is touching and echoes that between Pulley’s previous protagonists. Also present and correct is an octopus – a live one this time, rather than the mechanical, but alive, Katsu of her two watchmaker novels. As we all know, octopuses are amongst the most intelligent of creatures and Valery’s new pet, replacing the rat, is a little star.

At the beginning, of the novel, given the fantastical elements of her previous books, I had wondered if we were going to venture into Stranger Things territory with the radiation being caused by something alien. However, the truth is stranger than fiction, with the story being inspired by sinister real-life events, which makes it all the more shocking.

Natasha Pulley continues to create such memorable characters, and once more she has mined history for a wonderful background to this novel. Her prose is beautifully considered, yet the plot is pacy and full of adventure. The Half Life of Valery K will surely be one of the reading highlights of my year, I can’t recommend it highly enough and will read whatever Pulley writes next.

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Annabel is one of the co-founders of Shiny, and one of its editors.

Natasha Pulley, The Half Life of Valery K (Bloomsbury, 2022) ISBN: 9781408885215, hardback, 373 pp..

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