After the Fall, the Deadly Radiance of God

My reading since the last issue comprised: a psychological drama set during the U.S. Civil War; a gripping thriller based on true history; and a comprehensive look at how a major religious text came to be.

Issue #60, Saturday 17 February 2024

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

After Alice Fell by Kim Taylor Blakemore

Cover of After Alice Fell by Kim Taylor Blakemore

A novel set during the Civil War in the United States, focusing not on the war itself, but on a domestic, psychological drama, with the war in the background.

The novel is told from the first-person point of view of a woman called Marion Abbott. It opens in a morgue-like room in the basement of an asylum, with Marion identifying the body of her beloved sister Alice, who had been committed to the asylum a few years previously. Alice apparently fell, or perhaps jumped, from the roof of the asylum.

Though Marion is nominally the protagonist, in many ways it is Alice who is the real centre of interest of the story, and the character who has the most influence on the subsequent course of events even though she died before the novel opens.

Marion is consumed with guilt over Alice’s death. It was she who had left Alice, mentally disturbed since her early teens, with her brother Lionel and his new wife Cathy, while Marion went off to serve as a nurse on the war front. Her husband Benjamin, formerly a schoolteacher, was killed earlier in the war.

Unable to cope, they say, with her increasing mania, Lionel and Cathy had committed Alice to the asylum for her own safety. Marion, though, is filled with anger at this action, and the more she finds out how cruel the treatments were at the asylum, the more she seeks redress. She also has many, many questions. How on earth did Alice manage to get out of her locked room and up to the roof that night without being discovered and stopped? The manager of the asylum is dismissive of Marion’s concerns, as are the police.

Though Lionel and Cathy forcefully urge Marion to let it go, she simply can’t, and her own behaviour becomes erratic as she pushes for answers. She has to deceive her brother and sister-in-law in order to investigate what actually happened at the asylum.

Also in the mix is young Toby, Lionel’s son with his first wife, Lydia. Toby, I think, is about ten years old. He became very close to Alice after she came to live at his house, and they shared secrets with each other. Marion, too, becomes friendly with the young boy, who is missing his mother and doesn’t much like his father’s new wife Cathy.

Gradually, of course, Marion edges close to the truth, which is far wider and darker than she first supposes, and her discoveries have dramatic consequences for all involved.

I quite liked this, though I felt that the first half of the book dragged a little and spent too much time dealing with Marion’s self-recriminations before the action really took off. Once it does, though, the book kept me turning pages. However, I definitely thought that the ending was too pat by half, including a single chapter told from the first-person point of view of someone you are meant for a while to think is Marion, but who isn’t. A clever trick, I suppose, but too tricky for my taste.

So, not bad, but I’m not greatly incentivised to seek out other books by this author.

Note: I read this as a Kindle ebook. I’ve had an Amazon Prime membership for a few years now (I first signed up so I could watch The Expanse TV series on Prime Video). As part of my Prime subscription, I get one (or sometimes two) free1But remember TANSTAAFL: “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”! Kindle ebooks each month, chosen from a handful of titles. Until recently I didn’t own a Kindle, so this was of limited use, but I never knock back a free book! However I recently inherited a little Kindle Paperwhite reader which my mother owned. Given that I now have more than 50 unread Kindle books acquired through the Prime subscription, it’s going to be a busy little device! Anyway, After Alice Fell was one of those books, so I’ve made a start at least.

The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley

Cover of ‘The Half Life of Valery K’ by Natasha Pulley

You may recall that Natasha Pulley wrote The Kingdoms, an SF novel involving time travel and alternate histories, which I liked a lot. See my review here. She’s also written some well-regarded fantasy novels including her debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street.

The Half Life of Valery K, however, is neither SF nor fantasy but straight historical fiction. Set in 1963, it begins with a prisoner called Valery Kolkhanov in a Soviet gulag in Siberia. He’s six years in to a ten-year sentence, and like all the prisoners is struggling to survive the cold and deprivation. Then he’s unexpectedly told that he’s going to be transferred—he assumes to another prison camp. After a long and confusing journey by truck, plane and eventually a taxi, however, he finds himself in a complex of buildings set in the midst of a very wide area of dead or dying trees. He’s told that it’s called City 40, and that the building he’s taken to is dubbed “The Lighthouse”. It is, it appears, a “radioecological” research facility.

This is when we learn that before his imprisonment, Kolkhanov used to be a biochemist specialising in the effects of radiation. He’s been rescued from the gulag at the specific request of the lead scientist at The Lighthouse, a woman called Dr Elena Resovskaya, who had worked with Kolkhanov in the past. Kolkhanov is out of the gulag but will serve the rest of his sentence as a “prisoner-scientist”.

The purpose of the facility, she says, is to study the effects of radiation on animals and plant life in the area around the facility, which has been deliberately exposed to low level radiation for this purpose. Resovskaya leads a team of students who venture out for short periods of time to take samples. The students carry stopwatches to warn them when to return, though there are no dosiometers available to measure their exposure. Resovskaya assures them, and Kolkhanov, that the residual radiation is very low, she’s just being cautious.

Where did the radiation come from? You’ll recall that this is 1963 and later that year the Cuban Missile Crisis came very close to triggering an all-out nuclear exchange between America and the Soviet Union. Well, the main function of the complex is the six nuclear reactors on the site, which are generating plutonium for use in Soviet nuclear weapons. Keeping the location of City 40 a secret is thus considered to be of utter importance, and anyone who tries to communicate with the outside world is likely to be shot.

Indeed, the other main character in the novel is the facility’s security officer, a KGB man called Konstantin Shenkov. Though Kolkhanov finds Shenkov unexpectedly gentle for a KGB officer, it’s Shenkov’s job to do the shooting of those attempting breaches of security, and he’s a loyal Soviet citizen who follows orders.

Valery Kolkhanov is a very intelligent man with an insatiable curiosity, and so it’s not long before he starts to have grave doubts about what he is being told, particularly what he’s being told by Elena Resovskaya.

The more Kolkhanov probes, the more inconsistencies turn up. The radiation levels in the forest are much higher than he’s been told. Worse, there’s an actual city in City 40, where the families of the workers live. It’s obvious to Kolkhanov that the people living there are being exposed to radiation damage of which they are completely ignorant.

During one of his own sampling trips into the forest, Kolkhanov discovers a dead body lying in a pool of water, and to him it’s obvious that the man has suffered severe radiation exposure. The man is wearing only a hospital gown. Where did he come from? How did he get there? And how was he exposed to such a high level of radioactivity?

I won’t give too much more away, but the story is deeply engaging as Kolkhanov works out what is really going on. As well as the thriller aspects I’ve described, there’s also a queer romance sub-plot, as Kolkhanov realises he’s fallen in love with the security man Shenkov, who, however is married with four children. Kolkhanov struggles to conceal his growing affection for a man who could easily have him sent back to the gulag, or simply shoot him, no questions asked.

What makes all of this story of particular interest is that it is based solidly on actual fact. City 40 was a real place, and what happened there in 1957, six years before Kolkhanov arrives in the story, is well attested. The author details all this in a very interesting afterword.

I liked this a lot, though I wasn’t totally convinced by the ending of the story, which seemed to lower the level of tension much more quickly than I would have liked.

Still, definitely recommended. I’m going to hunt down some of Pulley’s earlier novels.

A History of the Bible by John Barton

Cover of A History of the Bible by John Barton

Subtitled “The Book and Its Faiths”.

I found this absolutely fascinating, though it took me quite a while to get through. Though I am not a Christian, I have always been really interested in religious thinking, the various ways we humans have tried to come to terms with our place in the universe, how we deal with the knowledge of our certain death, and so on. And I’m interested in the details of how certain religions like Christianity came to be in the form we know them now.

I’m particularly interested in the written or oral sources which lie behind the religion we know today. So, for instance, some years ago I bought a copy of the translation of the New Testament by David Bentley Hart,2Yale, 2017 which he calls a “pitilessly literal” translation from the Greek,3You know that all of the New Testament was originally written in Greek, right? Greek was the common language of the countries around the Mediterranean at the time, even including Rome, and all educated people would have written in it. by which he means a translation which strives to avoid being influenced by what doctrine might want it to say. Hart’s book has a fascinating foreword and is full of really interesting footnotes about specific translation issues.

I should emphasise that both David Bentley Hart and John Barton are practising Christians, by the way, though they both acknowledge that much of their work could make non-scholarly Christians very uncomfortable, certainly if they are ‘bible-literalists’. Nothing which they say, on the other hand, is obscure or unknown, it’s all based on considerable scholarly research based on established sources.

Barton starts with an analysis of the books forming Hebrew Scripture, which Christians know as the “Old Testament”. I found Barton’s analysis of the different natures, ages and sources of the books collected in the Hebrew Bible very clear and interesting. I was interested, for example, that the Book of Daniel appears to be of very late composition, though it purports to tell the story of someone living during the Babylonian exile, hundreds of years previously.

There’s no comfort at all in Barton’s book for those who believe that every word of the Bible has to be considered to be God’s Holy Truth. He writes quite a lot about needing to recognise the different genres of the writings in the Bible. These genres include historical (or semi-historical) records; laws of behaviour or religious practice; general philosophy; prediction;4Actually, Barton points out that it contains surprisingly little prediction, despite how heavy an emphasis Christians place on its predictions of the coming of Jesus. songs and poetry such as the Psalms; and some just fanciful folk legends such as the story of the Garden of Eden, which he suggests were never intended to be taken literally.

When it comes to the New Testament, I was fascinated to learn from Barton that the oldest Christian texts we have are the letters of Paul, who certainly appears to have been a very remarkable man. The gospels were written some years later, decades after the Crucifixion, and are likely to have been the first formal attempts to put down in writing what had been previously a largely oral tradition of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels are not consistent with each other in many respects, which makes sense given this background of them being assembled from a collection of previously oral sources, from which the Gospel writers variously chose to include or exclude specific pieces.

My personal belief, if that’s relevant here, is that something remarkable happened in Judea at the time. I believe that there was an actual person who we now know by the name of Jesus, who did preach about the End Times and gathered a large following. And that his teachings included at least some of the things he is recorded as saying in the Gospels, bearing always in mind that those writings were set down in Greek, whereas of course Jesus would have been speaking to his followers in Aramaic. So at best what we have in the English New Testament is a translation of a translation of someone’s decades-old recollection of what Jesus said. “Through a glass, darkly” indeed. I do believe that he had some important things to say about how we should live our lives, but beyond that I can’t stretch my belief.

Anyway, whether you are a believer or not, this book is a really comprehensive and very interesting look at how this important work came to be, its cultural impact, and the history of its various translations.

Recommended, but obviously it’s unlikely to appeal to all of my readers.

Proud and Lonely by Leigh Edmonds

This book hasn’t yet been published! But I’m helping the author, a very good friend of mine, prepare it for print and as part of that, I have proof-read the whole thing, so I thought I should add it to my “completed since last issue” list.

The subtitle of the book tells it all: “A History of Science Fiction Fandom in Australia”, so it may be rather a niche interest. But I certainly enjoyed reading it, though I spent some time shaking my head at the follies of Sydney SF fans in the 1950s, constantly feuding and back-stabbing each other.

The book is being published by Norstrilia Press, and should be available for sale in about a month to six weeks from now.

Currently Reading

Covers of An Intimate History of Evolution by Alison Bashford and Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Want to Read

Covers of Lola in the Mirror by Trent Dalton and My Brilliant Sister by Amy Brown

  1. But remember TANSTAAFL: “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”!

  2. Yale, 2017

  3. You know that all of the New Testament was originally written in Greek, right? Greek was the common language of the countries around the Mediterranean at the time, even including Rome, and all educated people would have written in it.

  4. Actually, Barton points out that it contains surprisingly little prediction, despite how heavy an emphasis Christians place on its predictions of the coming of Jesus.

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