I started 2020 off with two excellent reads.
Midnight in Chernobyl – Adam Higginbotham
This is, quite simply, one of the best works of non-fiction I’ve ever read. It is a highly detailed, yet brisk, accounting of the 1986 meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the then Soviet Union.
Higginbotham provides quick summaries of just about everything that led up to the disaster. A history of radiation and nuclear power. On overview of the byzantine Soviet bureaucracy. The nuclear arms race. How the power plant and its neighboring city of Pripyat were built. Quick background sketches of the primary workers inside the plant and city leaders who helped formulate the official response to the meltdown. An overview of what was going on in the USSR in the 1980s after Mikhail Gorbachev took over. These thorough if brief segments provide essential context that makes an interesting story compelling.
Then there is his exhaustive recounting of the disaster and its aftermath. He offers almost pornographic accountings of the process of the reactor exploding and melting down, breaking things down literally to the molecular level. Horrifying descriptions of the damage the meltdown wrought, both on the physical plant and the people who were working in it. And heartbreaking overviews of the inept local, Ukraine republic, and Soviet responses to the catastrophe.
Even for huge moments like Chernobyl, non-fictional accountings of them can often run dry. In Higginbotham’s hands, the story is a page turner as good as any work of fiction. This is an extraordinary book that should leave a deep and lasting impact on anyone who reads it.
The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien
This book came out in 2015, so it’s probably been on my To Read list since then. I think I’ve checked it out before but it sat in the pile and eventually went back to the library. I’m glad I finally got to it.
It is the story of a Serbian war criminal, Dr. Vladimir Dragan (modeled on Radovan Karadzic), who, fleeing European authorities under an assumed name, lands in remote western Ireland over 20 years after the Balkan Wars ended. He sets up shop as a bit of a new age/alternative medicine healer, and charms the residents in his new home with his odd and exotic ways. One town resident in particular becomes especially interested in him.
Fidelma runs a struggling boutique. She yearns to start a family, something she and her husband have been unable to do. Falling under Dr. Vlad’s charms and believing he could solve her problem, Fidelma approaches him about impregnating her. What follows is a brief and unsatisfying, for her, affair that does result in a pregnancy.
Dr. Vlad is soon discovered and captured by authorities. Old compatriots of his from the Balkans come looking to exact revenge. With him in custody, they take out their frustrations on Fidelma in a truly horrifying attack.
As her infidelity becomes public, she flees for London and a new life, which kicks off part two of the novel. There she becomes part of the city’s refugee community, living with a single mom from Africa and working with other women from all over the world cleaning office buildings at night. She slowly builds herself up again, and finds community in the strength of the women around her who were fleeing their own horrors to make a new life.
In the third part of the book, she confronts Dr. Vlad during his trial, then returns home to Ireland. There her husband takes her back just before his own death.
The first two thirds of The Little Red Chairs are mesmerizing and wonderful, despite one of the most difficult-to-read passages I’ve come across in awhile. Although it was published before 2016, there are some hints of what the world would become as O’Brien recounts what happened in Sarajevo in 1992. After the war, the Bosnian Serbs insisted that the siege and massacre the world watched live on TV never occurred, that they were peaceful, and that the Bosnian Muslims were killing their own people to try to make the Serbs look bad. Our Idiot in Chief did not invent coming up with alternative facts that suited his needs.
The third act, however, felt messy and confusing. I’m not quite sure what O’Brien was aiming for with that part of the book, but I certainly missed it. It’s a shame, because it mars what is an otherwise wonderful story.