Saved by the Bang by Marina Julie Neary
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
M. J. Neary refers to her novel Saved By the Bang as a dystopian novel. But that word implies an imaginary setting. This novel takes place in a time and place that was all too real and it is Neary's detailed portrayal of this fascinating setting that pushes her novel to five star quality. This is Belarus during the Gorbachev years and the time of the Chernobyl meltdown. The “Bang” in the title is clearly the explosion in the nuclear power plant, but it also seems to refer to the breakup of the Soviet Union. The author's home town is thirty miles from Chernobyl. I don't know if she was there during the disaster, but she certainly understands the mood and reactions of the citizens who were.
“Just across the Ukrainian border, in Pripyat. There was a power surge, and the core exploded. They were testing some cooling feature.” Nicholas paused, realizing he could not regurgitate the exact terminology. “I don't know what exactly happened there. Nobody has the facts straight, but it doesn't look good. Fires broke out. Radiation is leaking everywhere. Raw radiation,penetrating the soil, the air, the water. People are fleeing–the ones who know what's happening. It's the worst nuclear disaster in the history of mankind.”
The general atmosphere was of mirth rather than of alarm. It felt as if the city was going on a spur of the moment field trip to Kiev. An explosion? Way cool. Radiation? Far out. A spontaneous change of scenery, a random chance to escape the drudgery of the daily routine.
The plot follows the lives of professional singers and musicians at the Gomel Music Academy in Belarus. These are talented, but also privileged people. Antonia Olenski is a pianist who accompanies Nicholas Nichenko, one of the best tenors in the academy. Her husband, Joseph Olenski is a well known baritone who sings folk-rock as well as classical. They have a daughter, Maryana, who is a less than successful gymnast and gets picked on a lot.
There are affairs and near affairs among the characters, but what is most interesting are the feelings the characters have that relate to the setting. There are reactions to unique aspects of living in Belarus, such as disdain for people who speak Russian rather than Belarusian or contempt for the care received in local hospitals and the treatment of disabled veterans. There are descriptions of historically important places that are relatively unknown to American readers such as Gediminas Tower in Vilnius, Lithuania. And, of course, there are the varied reactions of the characters to the explosion and its aftermath.
This would be a excellent read for anyone interested in eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions
View all my reviews