Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich

This month’s Book Club is a bit of a rogue choice – I think most agreed it wasn’t a book they would ordinarily read. But that is one of the joys of Book Club; it is broadening our reading horizons.

Unsurprisingly, this is quite a grim read and thoroughly relentless; yet it is coloured by the most beautiful prose and absolutely no hint of sentimentality or mawkish pity. What I personally have found interesting is that, being the oldest in the group by some years, I am also the only one who actually remembers the event occurring. It was very odd for me to reflect on memories of British farmers worrying about their crops and livestock being affected by the fallout – a very real fear back then – with people who, by their own admission, simply cannot imagine what it was like.

But it has got me thinking. Why has Chernobyl captured the imagination in a way that Three Mile Island, Windscale – and possibly in the future, even Fukushima – haven’t? Was it the scale of the disaster (still the most serious nuclear accident ever) or the appalling secrecy that the Soviet Union tried to surround it with?

Chernobyl is at the forefront of my mind at the moment due to its thirtieth anniversary, so many articles and reports are being written about Chernobyl then and now. In time, I expect something similar will be done with Fukushima, the next most serious nuclear incident, but beneficiary of the lessons learned the hard way in Belarus in 1986. I think Chernobyl will remain a symbol of mankind’s hubris, trying to play god with powers they barely understand and unable to cope when that power was unleashed with devastating effect.

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