Voices from Chernobyl

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Voices from Chernobyl
256 pages; Picador

The winner that surprised the world

The Swedish Academy usually bestows the literature Nobel on poets and novelists, not journalists. But Belarus' Svetlana Alexievich is an unusual journalist: She's spent her career immersing herself in the most challenging stories about Russia, from soldiers in Afghanistan to ordinary citizens who survived the worst of World War II. Voices from Chernobyl, her best-known work outside her homeland, is a gut-punch of a book that chronicles the survivors of the catastrophic meltdown of the Soviet nuclear power plant in 1986. The book opens with a woman who recalls losing her husband, literally piece by piece; others remember harrowing evacuations and decry the government's failures to protect innocent citizens. There is very little of Alexievich's own voice in the book, but the way her subjects lay themselves bare reveals her generous and patient skills as an interviewer. "I don't want to talk about this," one woman tells her. "I won't." And then she does, sharing a story of heartbreaking intimacy.
— Mark Athitakis