Novel: Atomic Anna by Rachel Barenbaum

There’s nothing wrong with Rachel Barenbaum’s Atomic Anna (2022), a multifaceted tale of intergenerational family drama and cosmic fate, but for some reason it kept me at an arm’s length. Perhaps its speculative elements—a blend of time-travel logistics and alternate-worlds reality blurring—were too familiar, or made the stakes too obviously mutable. Whatever the reason, despite reading quite well and possessing distinct, winning characters, the narrative never truly got its hooks in.

The story involves a brilliant Russian scientist named Anna Berkova who, in 1986, is in proximity to the Chernobyl meltdown—which rips the fabric of space-time, catapulting her six years into the future. There, she encounters her daughter Molly, dying on the floor of her laboratory. To save her daughter’s life, and knowing that her experiences have confirmed the possibility of time-travel, Anna embarks on a quest to return to the past and prevent the Chernobyl meltdown, thereby preventing multiple calamities. But will her actions have unintended consequences?

The writing is confident and accessible, and the tapestry of relationships is nicely defined across several generations—from Anna’s Soviet science career in the mid-fifties, to Molly’s artistic aspirations in the seventies, to the college years of Molly’s daughter Raisa in the nineties. Barenbaum delineates these personalities nicely and develops an effective world around the tracks, which gradually entwine to unite the three heroes in a climactic moment. But the plot—while sound—is inherently distancing, since the timeline meddling and splintering realities diminish the attempted ticking-clock suspense of Molly’s oncoming brush with death. Given the suggested reshapeability of time and the leisurely, decades-spanning pace, it’s difficult to feel any jeopardy driving the action. On the other hand, readers will find pleasure, as I did, in the book’s lovely moments and thought-provoking themes about the ethics of changing the world, and what might be lost by doing so.

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