Book Reviews

The Chernobyl Privileges, by Alex Lockwood

What is the half-life of a secret?

Arriving at midlife with a string of failed jobs behind him, Anthony Fahey knows he’s lucky to be given a last chance as a radiation monitor at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, where Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons are kept.

Already struggling to keep his marriage together after the death of his wife’s father, Anthony finds himself at the centre of an emergency when an accident on a Trident submarine throws the base into crisis.

But as the situation worsens old memories and buried secrets from his childhood reach into the present, and Anthony begins to understand that it isn’t only radiation that has a half-life.

Inspired by real events, The Chernobyl Privileges is a searing psychological drama that depicts the traumatic experience of surviving disaster. Both heart-warming and tragic, it explores the consequences of decisions we are forced to make and that shape our lives.

The Chernobyl Privileges is the debut novel from Alex Lockwood. Set against the 1980s Chernobyl disaster, it explores sibling guilt and the contemporary debate around Trident missiles.

The protagonist of The Chernobyl Privileges is Anthony Fahey. A child of Chernobyl, Anthony was brought to the UK on a mercy mission from Ukraine; and adopted by a British couple. An Oxford graduate; he finds himself, after a run of failed jobs, working as a radiation monitor for the Trident nuclear weapons scheme in Scotland.

The book runs across two timelines: present day, and that of Anthony – then Anatolii’s – childhood in Ukraine. Linking these two timelines are letters from Sveta, Anthony’s sister living in Ukraine, written in present day. Her letters paint a picture of a life devastated and ruled by the effects of the accident in April 1986, a world Anthony has left behind many years previously. Anthony’s battle between his past and his present is a constant throughout the book.

“Are you two halves? You have lived twice as long outside of our country as you did inside.”

An accident on a Trident submarine brings memories that Anthony has blocked from his mind flooding back; and initiates a chain reaction of actions which will have yet another significant impact on his life.

Lockwood’s book offers a carefully researched examination of a number of key themes – principally, the use of nuclear power and the morality of this undertaking.

Anthony describes himself as:

“…a validation of everything [these men] worked for: a child survivor who’d come back to love nuclear power.”

This is presented against an atmosphere of increasing unrest amongst the UK population in response to the Trident scheme, and our growing understanding, through flashbacks to Anthony’s childhood, of the direct impact of the nuclear fallout on the first responders, workers, and survivors. The Chernobyl Privileges also depicts historic and ongoing mismanagement and poor understanding of nuclear energy – both the denial and attempted concealment of the Chernobyl disaster by Russian authorities in the eighties; and the Navy’s response to the incident on Tartarus in the present day, and apparent poor understanding of the implications. This ignorance is echoed in the treatment of Anthony’s past by his authority figures – his story is an afterthought; an inconvenience.  

“You know something of these emergencies, correct?”

“Something,” says Anthony. How small the size it boils down to.

The theme of nature, animals and animal imagery runs throughout the book. As a child, Anthony’s father tells him to be ‘like the wolf’, a personification that Sveta echoes in her first letter to her brother.

“…you were the wolf, brother. How does it feel to hear this?”

The naval base is depicted by Anthony as a ‘dormant beast’ and radiation as a giant serpent; both impossible to control. Sveta describes herself as hating the flowers and the trees, the nature that has become her enemy and the soil that stabs under her fingernails. We learn that Anthony’s intention was to become an expert in the impact of radiation on animals, and the way that ‘nature undid every engineered blueprint’.

The privileges within the book are multi-layered – first and foremost is the ‘tie’ to the accident that workers like Anthony’s father are forced to prove; to be able to gain their rightful benefits from the government. However, there is also privilege for Anthony in having escaped his past and built a new life for himself in Oxford; and the immense privilege of having survived – and the survivor’s guilt this brings with it.

The Chernobyl Privileges has clearly been heavily researched, and is sensitive to the horrors of the accident, its aftermath, and the ongoing impact on survivors and their families. It balances an unfolding story in 1980s Ukraine against a backdrop of the present-day global nuclear debate. With recent headlines surrounding the management and disposal of nuclear submarines in UK naval bases; this book proves itself a relevant, thought-provoking and engaging read.

The Chernobyl Privileges is published by Roundfire Books and is available to order through Waterstones and Amazon.

chernobyl privileges with wine

Alex Lockwood is a writer and scholar living in the North of England. He is the author of The Pig In Thin Air (Lantern Books, NY) and numerous journal articles, stories and essays. He has a love of contemporary literary fiction and a fascination for exploring male relationships, environmental issues, and how we live in our bodies. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from Newcastle University. The Chernobyl Privileges is his first novel.

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