Book Review: The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley

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.

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?

I’ve loved Pulley’s previous works and was delighted to be granted a copy of this via Netgalley a while ago. Its taken me a while to get to it as I’ve been unexpectedly busy, having finished reading last night though I can happily say that this may be my favourite of Pulley’s books so far.

Based around an actual Russian town this historical novel was fascinating and thoroughly gripping. The characters appeared fully formed on the page and Valery was so interesting to get to know, broken by the system but still determined to do the right thing and finding his way back to letting someone offer him support.

Shenkov to was delightful to get to know as the story unfolded, his motivations and the actions he takes as part of the KGB.

It’s really hard to say to much without giving a lot away as so much interlinks in this beautifully woven narrative. It had all the hallmarks that I’ve come to expect from Pulley’s books, a gentle building of relationships, a story that pulls you in and much to my delight an Octopus! I also loved the subtle hint part way in that I had been ‘saying’ Valery’s name wrong which sent me off to look up the correct Russian pronunciation.

If you enjoy historical fiction this is definitely one you need to pick up.

With thanks to Bloomsbury and Netgalley for a digital copy in exchange for honest review.

The Half Life of Valery K is available now.

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