Thriller set in PRIPYAT and CHERNOBYL
- Book: Exclusion Zone
- Location: Pripyat/Chernobyl
- Author: J M Hewitt
This review first appeared on our blog, where the author also talks about location.
There are very few novels that we have found set around Pripyat and the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant – so I was keen to read this book. Pripyat was the town established in 1970 to service the Nuclear Plant.
The book begins with the explosion of Reactor No. 4 on 26 April 1986 at Chernobyl, then in Russia. It was 40 hours later when the residents were asked to leave, but many had already suffered varying degrees of radiation poisoning by this point.
The story early on homes in on the hours after the explosion, and specifically on one family. Afia and Sissy Bello are sisters, who are caught up in the dreadful aftermath. Their Dad, working at the plant seemingly succumbs to the explosion and doesn’t come home; but Afia also disappears and it is in part the backstory to her disappearance that forms the backbone of the novel.
Move forward to 2015 and PI Alex Harvey in London is tasked with investigating multiple murders in the area around Pripyat, now in Ukraine, a very bloody and sadistic murderer is at work. He asks Elian Gould to accompany him (her family originally hails from the area), she can act as interpreter and she is on some level keen to go as she wants to explore the mystery of her family history.
The locations of London, bustling metropolis that it is, and Pripyat, desolate and dankly festering, are well evoked in the competent hands of this author. The writing is clear and smartly put together.
What didn’t really work for me so well was the structure. Most chapters are short, 2 or 3 pages long, sometimes 7, and this left me feeling that I was channel hopping through the story (at the beginning there is an index numerically listing each chapter and the start page, which isn’t really useful). Each chapter focuses on a different character, and there is time slip between 1986 and 2015, back and forth. This keeps up the pathos but as many of the chapters end on a bit of a knife edge, it can also feel frustrating, as the move between scenarios can feel too abrupt.
I also wanted to find out more about the psychological drivers of some of the characters, which I didn’t feel were really explored. What experiences in the past really spurred the characters to act in the ways they did….?
It will be interesting to see what J M Hewitt does next and where she chooses to set her next book.