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The Dead Lake - Hamid Ismailov, Andrew Bromfield

"A haunting Russian tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War. Yerzhan grows up in a remote part of Kazakhstan where the Soviets tests atomic weapons. As a young boy he falls in love with the neighbour’s daughter and one evening, to impress her, he dives into a forbidden lake. The radio-active water changes Yerzhan. He will never grow into a man. While the girl he loves becomes a beautiful woman."

 

4 of 5 stars

 

I was provided with a copy of this novella by the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

 

Yerzhan lives with his grandparents, mother and uncle in a remote outpost in Kazakhstan with only one set of neighbours and the odd passing train. He is surrounded by the Steppe, a huge swath of land that is virtually deserted. He has been in love since a child with his neighbour's daughter, growing up knowing that one day they will marry.

 

The first part of the story tells of the early stages of Yerzhan's life. Yerzhan is a gifted child, learning to play the violin with an almost prodigious quality, a talent that he cannot unfortunately utilise.

 

Yerzhan's uncle works at a nearby nuclear facility. Explosions and testing is carried out in the area and Yerzhan's home is in the fallout area. There is a child like naiveté in the descriptions of these explosions. As the reader we are aware of the dangers but to Yerzhan and his family they are almost a way of life, little can they imagine or anticipate the effect the testing would have on their lives. However as the years progress Yerzhan becomes aware of the effect the testing facility has and witnesses the devestation first hand.

 

One day during a school field trip to the testing facility Yerzhan dives into a forbidden pool of water - The Dead Lake. The effects of this are unnoticable at first but as the year progresses it becomes more noticable that Yerzhan is not ageing. Tests and old wife's remedies fail to correct the issue and Yerzhan remains trapped inside the body of a 12 year old whilst his family, and the love of his life, age.

 

It is the tale of a boy who never grew up, beautifully told, moving and almost mythical.

 

The backdrop of the Steppe is a perfect metaphor for Yerzhan's tale, lonely and bleak It is a short but compelling read, a haunting story that has an almost fairytale like quality to it, but the fairy tale is more Grimm than Anderson.

 

This is book number 13, falling under the 'Coming of Age' titles from Peirenne Press, but in this case 13 is a lucky number. This is the first Peirenne Press book I have read but if they are all of this standard it will certainly not be the last.