In her second novel, Rachel Barenbaum (A Bend in the Stars) presents a 450-page epic spanning Philadelphia, Berlin, Moscow and the doomed nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. At times, the novel is experimental, mixing imaginative science fiction with history, family drama, romance and political intrigue in a narrative structure as complex as the science in its backdrop. The story could’ve easily been told in graphic form (and indeed, comics play a large part in the story) and would make quite a film.
Atomic Anna moves among three generations of Soviet and American women, beginning at the moment when the Chernobyl reactor misfires on April 26, 1986. Scientist Anna Berkova, who seems to be asleep at the scene of the disaster, is caught in a time-travel ripple that sends her hurtling into the future. Anna’s genius-level scientific knowledge allows her to recognize the future world’s capabilities for devising a way of reversing time and remedying the man-made disaster in Chernobyl, but she is also given a horrifying look into the future.
In a parallel storyline—and there are many—Anna’s daughter, Molly, is on an odyssey through time, sent by Anna to 1950s Philadelphia as part of the exodus of Russian Jews fleeing the repressive Soviet system. Molly has no scientific abilities but is a born artist, and in a graphic series titled “Atomic Anna,” she tells a story based on the experiences of her mother and other researchers working on the nuclear program. Molly becomes a “wasted child” of the ’60s, falling prey to alcohol and drug abuse. She eventually gives birth to a gifted daughter, Raisa, who inherits her grandmother’s enormous scientific genius.
Anna is a constant presence throughout the book. She constructs an actual time machine that enables her to journey between lives and decades in a frantic race to stop destruction and hold the generations of her family together. As her female descendants careen through time and space and across continents, deep and abiding love for family connections sustains them all.
Atomic Anna ultimately offers a utopian vision of salvation, but it does require slow and careful reading to get there. Big chunks of the novel fit together and then split apart. Hold on tight, as the space-time ride is challenging.
In light of recent events, namely Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and occupation of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear site, there will be some evaluation of Atomic Anna for its “timeliness.” But readers should keep in mind the words of 19th-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne that, long ago, provided a template for reading Barenbaum’s innovative book. Hawthorne’s preface to The House of Seven Gables (1851) famously set up the distinction between “novels,” which depict probable true events from the “ordinary” human experience, and “romances,” which “present the truth under circumstances . . . of the writer’s own choosing or creation.” Romances were Hawthorne’s aim, as his stories intended to reveal universal truths through crafted circumstances and an intensified atmosphere—often symbolic, and always beyond the ordinary.
Just as the romance of epic literature is timeless, Atomic Anna’s demonstration of what may be learned about the human heart is also outside of time, and certainly beyond the ordinary.