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?
It is no surprise to readers of this blog that I have loved Pulley’s writing since first picking up The Watchmaker of Filigree Street some years ago. There is a tenderness, a gentility, a kindness and warmth to her characters and her plotting which is genuinely heart warming. They are novels which charm.
It would be too cynical, therefore, to suggest that we could play Natasha Pulley Bingo with her latest novel. But if a cynic were, the bingo card might look like this
Look at that! What a cheap comment.
But also, to a degree, it is true.
Thaniel’s synaesthesia in Watchmaker, Joe Tournier’s amnesia in The Kingdoms is echoed here with Valery who may be on or has elements of ASC – neuroatypical protagonists.
Mori and Missouri Kite and now Shenkov are all capable of extreme violence, at least off the page, and Pulley encourages us to still sympathise and empathise with them. Dangerous and edgy, indeed.
Historical setting: we are moving from Victorian England and Japan to the 1960s Cold War Soviet Union.
Octopus: present and correct, albeit living rather than (somewhat sentient?) clockwork.
So, the set up is that Valery K is a scientist working in a variety of fields, primarily biology and radiation, who begins the novel in a Siberian Gulag because twenty years earlier he had worked in Berlin with Josef Mengele – the issue for the Soviet state was not the interaction with the eugenicist Angel of Death but with decadent capitalism. We spend little time in the Gulag because within the opening pages Valery is whisked away to the mysterious Chelyabinsk 40.
His status is ambiguous: he is still a “zek”, a political prisoner serving his term and under constant threat of arrest, torture and return to the gulag; he is also a scientist with genuine respect being offered to him for his skills and knowledge. It is perhaps because of that ambiguity that the relationship between Valery and Shenkov – the prisoner and the KGB Officer who is willing to shoot Valery’s co-scientists and burn down the house of a journalist – just about becomes credible.
Shenkov is the weak link, if I am honest. Valery’s depiction is a credible and relatively convincing victim of oppression and brutality and his feat and paranoia are palpable. Shenkov, as a member of the KGB is complicit if not directly responsible for the brutality of the Soviet regime, the brutality that nearly broke Valery. The relationship between them, on which Pulley hangs the heart of the novel, feels much more uncomfortable that her other relationships. The only way that she manages to avoid the feeling that this is some manifestation of some form of Stockholm Syndrome is to make Shenkov unfeasibly good, saving orphans, completing orders as humanely as possible to avoid others completing them more brutally… perhaps too good to be true or credible.
The basic plot is embedded in real history – it must be real, there’s a wikipedia page dedicated to Chelyabinsk 40 – and centres around a study into the effect of massive nuclear contamination to wildlife. Vast and deliberate misinformation about the levels of contamination in this the alleged most polluted place on the planet, were rife. And, in Pulley’s invented addition, Valery discovers that there are also unethical human trials involving unwilling kidnapped subjects. Suspect governments and shady organisations could have been added to the bingo card at the beginning of this review!
As Valery uncovers a hidden village, whose inhabitants show extreme mutation, he shares his concerns with Shenkov and they uncover the truth. Valery, perhaps, has invested more research into the science than the sociology with this novel – or, at least, I felt that I had learned more of the science and found that the depiction of the KGB was at odds with and in conflict with what I feel I know about the Soviet Union already. Alongside this, Valery and Shenkov become more and more intimate, then misunderstand each other, then reconnect again – a cycle which occurs more than once.
The fantastical elements from previous novels is missing here, although perhaps the science takes its place, and time travel is limited to narrative flashbacks to reveal Valery’s past and both how he came to be in the Gulag and how he survived it. As always with Pulley, the balance between the present and the flashbacks was well judged and natural.
My biggest issue was the conclusion – so minor spoilers occur below. Shenkov has a wife, Anna, and children and he appears to be wholly dedicated to the children especially when he discovers that one has leukemia. As Valery recognises, his hold on Shenkov can only be secondary to his family’s hold on his affection, his love and his loyalty. And yet, in the finale as both Valery and Shenkov seek to defect to the West and Britain, his blase response to his family being left behind in a deeply polluted radioactive environment – and presumably in a deeply vulnerable condition as family of a defector – jarred massively. At the time, he was unconscious and unable to challenge or to complain, but later they seem to be dismissed in a single line. And that single line is more than Valery’s octopus gets!
And there is a very bizarre moment when addressed as “Mister” rather than as “comrade” and he rails about the oddness of the gendering of the word as if calling him “Penis” –
We would never all anyone Penis Harrison; how’s mister any different?
Whilst this may be a question raised about gender and hints that Valery views himself as transgender, there was no other suggestion before or after his defection that raised this.
In all, whilst I did enjoy the charm and the writing here, as I always have with Pulley, I found the novel much more problematic and less polished than any of her others.
What I Liked
- The science of radiation and how differently different aspects are measured.
- The tenderness and charm of the relationship between Shenkov and Valery.
- The management of the flashbacks and structure of the novel.
- Albert the octopus!
What Could Have Been Different
- The depiction of life in the Soviet Union could have been more credible.
- Shenkov’s characterisation could have been more credible.
- Anna and the children and Albert’s fate could have been made clear – and the characters could have cared more about them.