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Elefantens fot Madeleine Hessérus, Elefantens fot (The Elephant's Foot)

Natur & Kultur,  2016.

Reviewed by Deborah Bragan-Turner in SBR 2017:1

Review Section: Fiction - Adult

When a worker at Forsmark nuclear power plant,140 km north of Stockholm, passed a radiation monitor early on the morning of Monday, 28 April 1986, the alarm sounded, showing high levels of radiation coming from his shoes. After repeated scans revealed that the radioactive material did not come from Forsmark, further analysis identified particles found in the grass outside as specific to Soviet nuclear power plants and pointed to the real source of the radiation being 1,100 km away. That evening – two days after the disaster – the Soviet Union declared there had been an accident at Chernobyl in the Ukraine. 50,000 inhabitants from the nearby city of Pripyat were evacuated and at 9 p.m. a message was read on Soviet state television: the effects of the accident at the nuclear power plant were being remedied and assistance had been provided to any affected people.

Between 1986 and 2000, over 350,000 of those in the most severely contaminated areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were evacuated and resettled. Enormous variations exist in estimates of the number of deaths attributable to the accident. In 2009 a Russian publication concluded that nearly one million premature cancer deaths occurred worldwide between 1986 and 2004 as a result of the disaster and that nearly five million people still lived with dangerous levels of radioactive contamination.Some of the most harmful elements, such as caesium and plutonium, will remain in the environment for thousands of years.

The Elephant’s Foot of Madeleine Hessérus’s title is the solid mass of corium (nuclear fuel mixed with concrete,sand and melted metal) located in the basement under the original site of the core of reactor 4. This intensely radioactive mass was discovered six months after the accident. Anyone approaching it would have received a fatal radiation dose in under a minute and after five minutes would have had only two days left to live.

This novel, the third in the thematic trilogy Urbania, begins in the early hours of Saturday, 26 April 1986, when the explosion and fire in the Chernobyl power plant send up a vast plume of smoke into the atmosphere. As the radioactive cloud drifts over large parts of the western USSR and Europe, the people of Pripyat are evacuated, forced to leave behind their belongings and livestock. The narrative then moves to the present day, where Swedish scientist Katarina Bergman looks back on the time she spent in a research centre near the exclusion zone some years after the disaster, and it is in this earlier period that the story unfolds. Katarina joins a small international team of scientists investigating and measuring the effects of radiation on animals and plants. She is deeply affected by her visits to‘the zone’, where she sees verdant forest creating a habitat for non-indigenous animals alongside overgrown buildings and homes,and experiences the eerie silence of ghost towns and villages, abandoned but for a handful of humans who have defied regulations and returned.

In her powerful observations Hessérus paints a detailed picture of the intricate investigation and data gathering carried out inside the centre; her own scientific training and knowledge clearly inform her writing. The narrative is carefully constructed and the characters nicely drawn, but it is in her depiction of the landscape and regeneration of life within ‘the zone’ that the richness of her language has greatest impact. Against a backdrop of unimaginable havoc wreaked by man on nature and humankind on the one hand, and of the indomitable human spirit on the other, she explores perceptions of reality and responsibility in a novel about love and relationships.‘Don’t look for a scapegoat. We all bear the guilt.’

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