Under a crimson dawn sky, Artyom Telvatnikov stands in a field of cows, his fingertips glistening with warm blood that streams from their ears.It is April 1986, and ten miles away, above the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, clusters of sparks fill the air, inflaming the final years of the Soviet Union, inciting its citizens to actions of brutality, mystery and terrible beauty. Grigory, a surgeon working in the wake of the disaster, in a place where all natural order has been distorted, is forced to question everything he has known. In Moscow, his estranged wife, Maria, a former dissident, struggles to free herself from the constraints imposed upon her by the state. Her nephew Yevgeni is a nine-year-old piano prodigy whose sense of rhythm is rapidly eroding.
There has always been something mysterious about Russia. Something about this vast country far beyond the comprehension of most Europeans, which spans Europe and Asia. Even more so when one looks at the period of the Soviet Union. We still know very little about what happened behind the Iron Curtain. There are few other countries which feel both so removed from our lives other than maybe China and of course North Korea. Its a daring move therefore for a writer, particularly a debut novelist, to set a book in this strange world flying straight in the face of that old adage to “write what you know“.
Set during 1986 around the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster, it follows effectively two families caught up in larger events and a larger machine which is undoubtedly in its death throes. It paints a harsh picture of the reality of life under the Soviet regime. The fear with which people live. The knowledge of what happens to those who dare to stick their heads above the parapet and question things. Even 9 year old Yevgeni knows better than to ask questions about certain things. The complete lack of value placed on people’s lives by the regime. Appearances are far more important than a few million lives. All this is conveyed through beautiful prose which manages to capture this strange landscape. The descriptions of the effect of the radiation both on people and the landscape are particularly poignant. The harsh white light. The way the forest turned bright red almost as if it was bleeding. They are not scenes any of us will ever have seen yet McKeon paints them before our eyes.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and once I got past the first 50 pages, which I was really too tired to try and read, and therefore felt like a slog, I found myself swept along by the narrative. I lost two mornings entirely to this wonderful debut novel. Yet for all that, I find there is something holding me back from awarding it 5 stars. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. I can’t fault this book. The descriptive powers of McKeon are wonderful, and the characters are all well developed. It is an excellent debut novel with none of the usual pitfalls of debut novels. No bum notes. No superfluous story lines, the attempts to cram in every idea for a book they’ve ever had. And still a little voice says no to 5 stars.
I can’t explain this reticence on my part and really isn’t fair on what is an excellent book. 4 stars or 5 stars I’ll still be recommending this to everyone I know.