From Publishers Weekly
A chorus of fatalism, stoic bravery and black, black humor is sounded in this haunting oral history of the 1986 nuclear reactor catastrophe in what is now northeastern Ukraine. Russian journalist Alexievich records a wide array of voices: a woman who clings to her irradiated, dying husband though nurses warn her "that's not a person anymore, that's a nuclear reactor"; a hunter dispatched to evacuated villages to exterminate the household pets; soldiers sent in to clean up the mess, bitter at the callous, incompetent Soviet authorities who "flung us there, like sand on the reactor," but accepting their lot as a test of manhood; an idealistic nuclear engineer whose faith in communism is shattered. And there are the local peasants who take this latest in a long line of disasters in stride, filtering back to their homes to harvest their contaminated potatoes, shrugging that if they survived the Germans, they'll survive radiation. Alexievich shapes these testimonies into novelistic "monologues" that convey a vivid portrait of late-Communist malaise, in which bullying party bosses, paranoid propaganda and chaotic mobilizations are resisted with bleak sarcasm ("It wasn't milk, it was a radioactive byproduct"), mournful philosophizing ("[t]he mechanism of evil will work under conditions of apocalypse") and lots of vodka. The result is an indelible X-ray of the Russian soul.
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*Starred Review* "Chernobyl is like the war of all wars. There's nowhere to hide." On April 26, 1986, the people of Belarus lost everything when a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station exploded. Many people died outright, and many were evacuated, forced to leave behind everything from pets to family photographs. Millions of acres remain contaminated, and thousands of people continue to be afflicted with diseases caused by radiation as 20 tons of nuclear fuel sit in a reactor shielded by a leaking sarcophagus known as the Cover. For three years, journalist Alexievich spoke with scores of survivors--the widow of a first responder, an on-the-scene cameraman, teachers, doctors, farmers, Party bureaucrats, a historian, scientists, evacuees, resettlers, grandmothers, mothers--and she now presents their shocking accounts of life in a poisoned world. And what quintessentially human stories these are, as each distinct voice expresses anger, fear, ignorance, stoicism, valor, compassion, and love. Alexievich put her own health at risk to gather these invaluable frontline testimonies, which she has transmuted into a haunting and essential work of literature that one can only hope documents a never-to-be-repeated catastrophe. Donna Seaman
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