cover image The Half Life of Valery K

The Half Life of Valery K

Natasha Pulley. Bloomsbury, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-1-63557-327-5

The provocative, unsettling latest by Pulley (The Kingdom) revolves around a horrifying and secretive research project deep in the countryside of the Soviet Union in 1963. After having spent several years in a Siberian prison camp, biochemist Valery Kolkhanov is moved to the facility, where he’s initially pleased with the warm water, plentiful food, and opportunity to study an irradiated ecosystem. Eventually, he begins to suspect that all is not as it seems, despite assurances from his former professor and current boss, the glamorous Dr. Resovskaya. As Valery forms an unusual bond with Konstantin Shenkov, the KGB officer in charge of security for the center, the two discover evidence of a conspiracy along with unspeakable human damage caused by the facility’s experiments with radiation exposure, and find their lives at risk. Pulley, extrapolating out from the records of a historic Soviet research center, raises questions about scientific experimentation and the ways in which it can be manipulated for less than honorable purposes. Her dark humor, which turns on the blind faith given to Soviet authority figures despite their outlandish claims, combines with complex characters and a clear understanding of radiation science to yield an explosive blend. The chilling result feels all too plausible. Agent: Jenny Savill, Andrew Nurnberg Assoc. (July)