Excerpt from The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Half Life of Valery K

by Natasha Pulley

The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley X
The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2022, 384 pages

    Mar 19, 2024, 384 pages


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Peggy Kurkowski
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The Half Life of Valery K

Sverdlovsk was an ugly industrial city. Outside the airport, it was so warm that there was a misty rain glinting on the steps and the lamp posts and the bonnets of the taxis. There was no need for a coat, even. He was staring at the film of water moving under someone's windscreen wipers when the KGB lady hailed a taxi and put him in it.

Immediately Valery was enfolded in the glorious smell of hot leather and vodka, and what must have been a dab of furniture polish inside the heater. He moved along the back seat to leave room, but she didn't get in; she was going to Moscow. Valery twisted round, taken completely by surprise. Wherever he was going, it wasn't standard practice for the KGB to just leave a prisoner alone with a random cab driver.

Again, he wanted to ask what was going on; but if she slammed his fingers in the door, his bones would turn to powder.

She shut the door and thumped on the roof. The driver set off.

Maybe the driver wasn't just a cab driver. But none of the doors were locked. Valery could just hop out at the traffic lights. There was a set at red outside the airport. He could get out, and walk off. Perhaps the driver would be able to shoot him, but perhaps not. He touched the door handle, his fingertips aching with potential. get out and go where, with no money and no other clothes? It was warmer here than Siberia, but that still wasn't warm. Sleeping outside would be dangerous. But maybe that would be better than wherever he was going now. He couldn't think properly. It was a shock. He'd wondered this morning – Jesus Christ, only this morning – how much of his mind had dissolved lately, but he hadn't known it was this bad. He felt paralysed.

The lights changed. The driver sped away. He was one of those people who plainly felt that the accelerator should be untouched or floored. Then they were going at forty kilo metres an hour, and jumping out would have broken every bone in Valery's body.

Valery scraped up some courage. There was no sign of a gun. It was possible the man wasn't KgB. 'Where are we going?' he tried.

'Can't tell you yet,' said the driver, not in an unfriendly way. 'Settle in, it'll be an hour or so.'

Valery nodded slowly. There were no more traffic lights. The steel giants that were the Sverdlovsk factories glided by, and soon the car passed the city limits. After that, it was only miles of arrow-straight road, punctuated every so often by more factory towns whose white tower blocks and grid streets looked like they'd all come from identical prefabricated kits. The thrum of the taxi engine was lulling, and he fell half-asleep, his head resting against the window. There was a vodka bottle on the front passenger seat, already three-quarters empty. It made a talkative sloshing sound whenever they went over a bump in the road.

He woke up because the taxi had accelerated. It pressed him back into the seat, and then slung him forward as the driver changed gear. Confused, he looked behind them, then jumped when the driver snapped his fingers at him. The man didn't speak, but he pointed to a sign coming up fast now.


They shot past it at eighty kilometres an hour.

'Because of the poison in the ground,' the driver said.

Valery didn't know what to say to that.

Coming up on their left now were the skeletons of burnt-out houses. The roofs were just blackened sticks, and all that was left of the structures were the stone chimneys. Chimney after chimney, set at angles to each other. The houses would have been wide-spaced, with big gardens – for crops maybe, and animals. grass and weeds grasped at the ruins. in another few years, they would cover them, and nobody passing by would know what the oddly shaped hillocks had been.

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Excerpted from The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley. Copyright © 2022 by Natasha Pulley. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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