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Summary

Bloomsbury presents The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley, read by Jot Davies.

The truth must come out.

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. 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 hidden within a forest so damaged it looks like the trees have rusted from within. 

Here, 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: 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?

Based on real events in a surreal Soviet city, and told with bestselling author Natasha Pulley’s inimitable style, The Half Life of Valery K is a sweeping historical adventure.

©2022 Natasha Pulley (P)2022 Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Critic reviews

"Pulley adds to her impressive oeuvre with another exquisite novel. Many of the author’s trademarks are on display here: a finely-drawn period setting, a vein of dark humour, a plot blending historical fact and fiction, and a protagonist seeking to do the right thing in the face of a brutal political machine. An illuminating and immersive historical tale." (Vaseem Khan)

"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."(Publishers Weekly)

What listeners say about The Half Life of Valery K

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Too bleak.

I couldn't finish it. There was nothing to engage with, just endless, monotonous bleakness. I enjoyed all Natasha Pulley's other books, so this was a great disappointment.

1 person found this helpful

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Thoroughly enjoyed it!

Normally a Pulley fan but struggled with The Kingdoms so I was hopeful that this would suck me in - and it did!

I enjoyed the narrator, the variety of British accents instead of Eastern European ones tickled me.

*Spoilers ahead*

Won't go into much detail, except for the Afterword. I always find it so impressive to get to the end of these books that feel fanciful and fictitious for it to be revealed some things are actual occurrences, it's quite brilliant. It just edges on historical fiction as well as sci-fi in this case.

The only thing that didn't sit right with me was the romance, it became quickly apparent that Shenkov was going to be the love interest and it felt ... boring. As it was clear then that this would follow the theme of her other books. And it really didn't need to have any romance at all for the story to work, instead the story started to bend around the pair.

I felt awful on Anna this long suffering wife who didn't want kids, didn't want to work in this radioactive city and had terminal cancer all because of her husband who she must have known was gay after he got arrested in the first place.

For her to get written out at the end was harsh. Plus Constantine "I'd do anything for my kids" Shenkov not really commenting or making an effort to contact his children after the stink he made about having them was disappointing.

The whole English couple dinner was also just a weirdly placed message, just crammed in at the end.

However, another great read.

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Brummies in the gulag!

An interesting story but the narration left a lot to be desired! Liverpudlian, midland and Irish accents were used for various characters. Some of the dialogue was over simplistic and difficult to believe. Pity.

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A frighteningly tense in a 'Big Brother' way novel

I love Natasha's novels, they pull you into their world in a heartbeat.
The research she must do to create her books must be intensive.
Love the Octopus!

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Gripping

A gripping story well told . The characters were well drawn and their desperate situation evoked great empathy in me .Excellent narration

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Loved every minute

At this point, Natasha Pulley could publish her shopping list and I'd rave about it, so I think it's fair to say I went in ready to be swept off my feet. It's her first one that has no magic at all to it - as she said herself, radioactivity is weird enough on its own, and while I was a bit apprehensive about that (because I love the magic, not gonna lie), I think she was right. It stands beautifully on its own without any magic at all.

It must be difficult to publish a book about Russia in 2022; even more so having written a book about Russia in 2021 and watching world events unfold as you preparing for the publication of this book. It didn't distract me from the story at all, however. It's set in Russia, of course, and the characters are Russians, but first and foremost it's a story about universal human things that could in a similar form be set anywhere. So if you've been hesitating to pick this up for this reason, please don't. You'd be missing out on a beautiful book.

She brings all her trademark features to play: the broken characters that have their light escaping at the seams, the wonderful worldbuilding, the masterful plot structure, the tender characterisation. Pulley just keeps getting better with every book that she writes, and it's such a shame that every book that she writes seems to receive a little less press than the one before. For me, she's one of the very few living auto-buy authors that I have.

If you loved The Kingdoms by the same author, if you enjoy warm and hopeful stories set in difficult times that never slip into being smarmy or feel-good, if you like stories dealing with adversity little by little one day at a time, still finding things to laugh and weep at; then this book is for you. There's a mystery to solve, but it's not a murder mystery; there's nucelar fission but it's not a science book; there are people falling in love but it's not a romance. It's all of these things, but its brilliance exceeds the sum of its parts. Do read it.

The only thing that did not quite work for me was the narrator - I was not a fan of his voice, and some of the characters were voiced oddly to my ears. But that's just personal preference.

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Very enjoyable but niggles

I really did enjoy this. Valery is an engaging character and the plot unfolds really well. Two things made me lose focus. The narrator pitches Valery’s voice (imo) too young and fresh for a 45 yr old gulag survivor and a few references felt odd. For eg. James Bond as a reference point works for the reader but surely not for an average soviet citizen in the early 60s and roundabouts didn’t take off until the late 1960s in Britain. Small points but they broke the flow of my engagement with the book. If you aren’t an awkward pedant, you’ll love it.