Natasha Pulley is a British novelist best known for The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Kingdoms. Her newest novel is The Half Life of Valery K, based on real events in a surreal Soviet city. When the publicist reached out with an advanced reading copy, I accepted for its enticing plot and the chance to read Pulley’s work.
We meet the novel’s lead character as a prisoner in a Siberian labor camp in 1963. He’s a nuclear specialist and the hero of this story, a confident survivor who sees wrongs that must be put right, but it’s not the labor camp that concerns this story. In the first pages, Valery Kolkhanov is transferred to a nuclear research facility. It’s located in a remote city that requires KGB approval to enter and leave. Here Valery is to study the effects of radiation on an ecosystem, to discover which species develop radiation resistance and which do not. He’s informed of this by Elena Resovskaya, who requested his presence for this project. Valery studied with her long ago, when he was a university undergraduate.
What’s going on is immediately hair-raising because the environment in this secret place is irradiated. Valery and other new researchers are assured the risk of exposure to them is low, that the amount of radiation in the soil is measured carefully. You are safe is the message, delivered with certainty and a handout — an area map zoned by radiation levels. The facts don’t line up for Valery, not only the random calculations on the map, but also the miles of dead birch and pine trees surrounding the city. “How does minimal radiation obliterate a forest?” he asks another scientist, who also questions the map and later, suspiciously, disappears.
It’s a powerful set-up that quickly engages, but then the story marches through a sequence of exposure incidents and strategically placed back stories that spin without hierarchy of significance. The plot rushes forward but on a flat trajectory.
Valery finds a dead body in a lake with obvious signs of radiation poisoning. He then discovers a group of people camping illegally on the city’s perimeter and living off the poisoned land. He suffers from an attack of radiation poisoning after being exposed to the soil for longer than is allowed. He also develops a relationship with a KGB agent, who seems threatening at first but then becomes trusting, intimate, and a believer in Valery’s dire warnings. As Valery struggles with one situation after another, as he increasingly witnesses the danger, that insistent narrative tug – something you’d expect while reading the novel — fails to grab and escalate: How will he survive? How can he alone skirt local authorities and fight Moscow? Dramatic tension should build, but instead only murmurs.
Author Natasha Pulley cleverly flirts with the fantastic, carrying it off with impeccable dry humor. She gives Valery a pet octopus named Albert, and although he makes few appearances, he’s quite memorable. He changes the TV channel using the remote, which very well could be an anachronism in 1963. Such inventiveness, however, gives this book a much-needed saving grace. Another redeeming feature is the clarity of the mind-bending science. Also — witty quips from the scientists, priceless metaphors, and the author’s confident narrating voice.
Questions finally get answered, such as why the soil is so dangerously contaminated, how the body got in the lake, and why Dr. Resovskaya persists in her denial. And then there’s a secret lab, an implausible raid, and an ending that feels good. It makes the story work, but it’s too easy, disregarding inconvenient complications.
The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley is published by Bloomsbury. A version of this review was recorded and broadcast to listeners of central Ohio NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM.