At 01:23:40 on April 26th 1986, Alexander Akimov pressed the emergency shutdown button at Chernobyl's fourth nuclear reactor. It was an act that forced the permanent evacuation of a city, killed thousands, and crippled the Soviet Union. The event spawned decades of conflicting, exaggerated, and inaccurate stories.
This book, the result of five years of research, presents an accessible but comprehensive account of what really happened - from the desperate fight to prevent a burning reactor core from irradiating eastern Europe, to the self-sacrifice of the heroic men who entered fields of radiation so strong that machines wouldn't work, to the surprising truth about the legendary "Chernobyl diver", all the way through to the USSR's final show-trial. The historical narrative is interwoven with a story of the author's own spontaneous journey to Ukraine's still-abandoned city of Pripyat and the wider Chernobyl Zone.
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Lost in his own navel
There is a great and tragic story to be told here. Pieces of it shine through, but they are tangled in a bewilderingly banal narrative of self that utterly distracts from the story.
Michael Page valiantly struggled with shoddy material; I have no fault with his performance.
There is a grand tradition of using one's personal interaction with historical events as a lens for understanding the story and significance of those events. For an example of how this can be done in a way that enhances the story, see Norman Maclean's "Young Men and Fire," the story of the Mann Gulch fire that killed a smoke jumper team, as well as Norman Maclean's personal effort to come to understand that story. Maclean manages to weave these narrative threads into something greater than either would have been on their own.
I think this is what Andrew Leatherbarrow sought to do, weaving the story of the Chernobyl disaster together with the story of how he came to be on a tour of the site, and how that affected him. Sadly, Leatherbarrow's personal narrative is self-indulgent, boring, and really does not touch on the events of April 26, 1986. Instead, we are treated to a series of regretful chapters about not being able to compose camera shots, being rude to Ukrainian workers, and pedestrian descriptions of what must have been a haunting panorama. We learn more about Leatherbarrow's angst than about Chernobyl.
The chapters where he deals with the accident itself are incisive, interesting and filled with the sense of how inevitable some tragedy was. These are well enough written to rescue my rating from a one star. But, it is telling that, having fallen asleep for the last half an hour of the book, I did not feel the need to go back and listen again.
Save your credits, this one's not a good buy.