When fictional time travel is done right — think Jack Finney’s classic “Time and Again,” or Stephen King’s “11/22/63” — it is hard to resist. There’s the allure of improving history (your own or the world’s), and the inherent tension of unintended consequences. Any event you change, no matter how small, is a domino ready to tap the next event, and the next.
“Atomic Anna,” Rachel Barenbaum’s second novel (out now), does time travel right.
Barenbaum, who lives in Brookline, does not seem to do anything small. She has multiple degrees from Harvard (in business, literature and philosophy), was a hedge fund manager before she turned to fiction, and has written for publications including the Los Angeles Review of Books and Literary Hub. She also hosts the podcast “Debut Spotlight,” where she interviews authors about their new work.
With “Atomic Anna,” Barenbaum has created a saga that manages to be both sweeping and riveting. It is primarily about three women: Anna, an atomic physicist; her daughter Molly, a comic book artist; and Molly’s daughter Raisa, a math genius. Their overall tale encompasses an immigrant story and a love story; the destructive power of family secrets and the regenerative power of friendship. These are all girded with some complex physics, which Barenbaum describes in prose that is as elegant as it is accessible.
“Atomic Anna” opens in April 1986, the night of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Here, “opens” seems more fitting than “begins,” because the book’s first page drops you directly into ongoing action.
At the moment of the Chernobyl explosion and meltdown, the now elderly Anna is in her apartment in nearby Pripyat, holding a small amplifier she has designed to control electro-magnetic waves. The massive nuclear reaction causes her to jump through time.
Anna lands a few years in the future, Dec. 8, 1992, at a science research station on Mount Aragats in Armenia. Inside the building is her grown daughter Molly, whom Anna has not seen since Molly was a baby in the 1950s. Molly has been shot, and tells Anna “The reaction caused the jump. We’re out of time.” Soon after, Anna is pulled back to 1986 and to her apartment, now holding her amplifier with burned hands.
Though her time trip was unexpected, Anna is not completely surprised. On her own, Anna had been working on the puzzle of time travel for decades, ever since she was a young Soviet physicist in the 1930s. She became convinced she could “find a way to use electro-magnetic waves to access ripples in space-time — to bend time.”
Anna needs to find why she was pulled to 1992 and to her lost daughter. She also knows that as the leader of the team that built Chernobyl, she is going to be blamed for the meltdown. She leaves in secret to journey to Mount Aragats, to find answers about her lost daughter and more about Chernobyl.
In the early 1950s, Anna had helped her best friend Yulia and her husband Lazar flee to America and raise Anna’s baby Molly as their own, to give her a bigger life than she would have had in the Soviet Union. Growing up in the tightknit Little Russia neighborhood of Philadelphia, Molly remembers her adoptive parents reading Life magazine “as a set of instructions on what Americans were supposed to think and do.”
In the 1960s, teenage Molly clashes with Yulia and Lazar over everything from clothes to schoolwork. A gifted artist, Molly wants to tell stories through comics, a world “dominated by characters, shapes, and feelings.” She creates her own comic book series, “Atomic Anna.” The title character, based on her biological mother, leads a trio of all-women superheroes who battle villains in a snowy mountain range. And yet, Molly always wonders if real-life Anna had used her intellect for good or evil in Russia; Yulia and Lazar share little of their past life with her.
Anna can now jump to specific moments in the 1970s and 1980s, all with the goal of fixing Chernobyl and fixing her family. There is a lot to fix. In the 1970s, Molly slides into a disastrous relationship with Viktor, a local drug dealer, and with him descends into a spiral of alcohol and pills. When Molly has their daughter Raisa, she is a negligent mom, at best.
Fortunately, Raisa is preternaturally self-sufficient, walking past her sleeping mother to get herself to elementary school each day. Raisa also shares her grandmother’s scientific prowess, and then some. She teaches herself from library books borrowed or stolen (the numeric “symbols and the diagrams were the most beautiful things she had ever seen, and she knew she had to find a way to understand them”).
Even more fortunate, Raisa occasionally has someone appear in her life who helps set her on a wider, safer path; these include a keenly observant teacher and a boy whose family fled Chernobyl and settled in a house on Raisa’s street. By the time Raisa is in high school, her math talents outpace even college textbooks. At least, that is one of Raisa’s timelines.
At the science station on Mount Aragats in the 1980s, Molly chronicles Anna’s improvements on the amplifier by creating out-of-time issues of “Atomic Anna.” With each time jump, Anna learns more about the principles and dangers of time travel. Anna can remain in a time destination for just two hours (which also helps to keep the story taut). She can jump to a particular year no more than two times; after that, the ripples become too flat to enter. When she is in the destination time, Anna cannot be too near her past self; proximity causes her current self to suffer headaches and other pains.
Time travel does take a toll on the mind and the body; Anna does not know how many more jumps she will be strong enough to make. If she can change only one thing, her family or Chernobyl, how does she choose? In different ways throughout this novel, Barenbaum poses versions of this question to each of the main characters: How do you decide what is most important to you?
The time jumps move the overall story forward even as each time jump alters an individual’s tale. This would be confusing if it were not for Barenbaum’s narrative skills, and the way she has structured the book. Each chapter has the name of the character from whose perspective that chapter is written, and also includes the date and location of the action.
Even without the dazzling time travel, these characters and storylines would be compelling. With it, they are transfixing.
In the book’s acknowledgments, Barenbaum notes that her inspiration for “Atomic Anna” was a 2020 New York Times article about a “real-life cosmic ray research station on Mount Aragats.” Countless people read that article. Only Barenbaum used it as a launchpad to create a multi-dimensional, splendidly crafted novel.