Absorbing Cold War tale based on real events

Published date24 September 2022
Publication titleMix, The
Natasha Pulley


Natasha Pulley’s fifth novel is a Kafka-esque love story that captures the surrealism of life in the USSR during the Cold War and asks hard questions about the ethical limits of scientific research.

The story opens with the titular narrator, a middle-aged biochemist, being transported from a Siberian gulag to City 40, a newly-constructed town surrounded by miles of dying forest. Expecting to become a test subject in some painful and potentially fatal human trial, he is surprised to find himself seconded to a laboratory to study the effects of radiation on the ecosystem.

Apparently, liquid waste has been deliberately released into the water table, contaminating the soil and lakes with a low dose of radiation to determine whether the flora and fauna could develop resistance. But if the radioactivity is as low as she suggests, why are researchers only allowed outside for 30 minutes a day, and why do the trees look as if they are rusting from within? Even more worryingly, why do none of City 40’s other inhabitants seem at all concerned about it?

Valery’s discomfort is further heightened by the attentions of the head of security Konstantin Shenkov, a disturbingly attractive man whose kindness must surely be intended to make punishment, when it comes, even more painful.

Valery is a complicated and ambiguous character. On the one hand he delights in the scientific opportunity this...

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