Time-Travel With a Soviet Jewish Twist in ‘Atomic Anna’
By Rachel Barenbaum (Grand Central Publishing)
If you could travel back in time to change history, should you? Writers have grappled with this question since H.G. Wells introduced readers to time travel with his groundbreaking 1895 master work, The Time
Machine. Rachel Barenbaum, author of the acclaimed A Bend in the Stars, tackles the implications of time travel as well as the promises and pitfalls of nuclear science with a Soviet Jewish twist in her inventive new novel, Atomic Anna.
Barenbaum opens her story on April 26, 1986, the date of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown, the worst nuclear disaster in history. Chief engineer of the plant and brilliant Soviet scientist Anna, who has hidden her Jewishness throughout her long career, is asleep in a nearby apartment at the time. The meltdown accidentally sends her on a jump through time and space to 1992 and Mount Aragats in Armenia—home to a Soviet cosmic ray research station. The jump saves Anna and sets her on a mission to travel back and prevent the meltdown.
But Anna’s quest to return to the precise date needed to stop the disaster at Chernobyl—today part of Ukraine and in recent headlines due to the war there—is not straightforward. As she analyzes the anomaly that caused her first jump and tries to fine-tune her time machine, she finds herself traveling to other eras, meeting family members with problems that call out for intervention.
Among the many memorable characters in Barenbaum’s novel are Anna’s husband, Yasha, a scientist and KGB operative, and her best friend, Yulia, a Jewish refusenik. Most important, however, are Anna’s daughter, Molly, an artist whose Atomic Anna comic books, carried back and forth through time, leave clues for unsuspecting characters, and Anna’s granddaughter, Raisa, a brilliant mathematician.
Anna has never developed a relationship with either her daughter or granddaughter. Years before the Chernobyl meltdown, she had sent a young Molly on a daring escape to freedom in America with Yulia and her husband. Raised in 1960s Philadelphia and feeling abandoned by her birth mother, Molly turns to drugs. Her struggles with substance abuse cause Molly to abandon her own daughter, who is sent to foster care. Barenbaum masterfully switches back and forth among the women’s lives, detailing their struggles with intergenerational trauma and personal aspirations as well as how they grapple with their Jewish identity.
Atomic Anna is Hadassah Magazine‘s One Book One Hadassah book club pick for June. Join us on Wednesday, June 15 at 7:00 p.m., as Lisa Hostein, executive editor of the magazine, interviews author Rachel Barenbaum about her new book. Free and open to all. Register here.
In the Soviet Union, Anna must pay a “high price to erase the label” of her Jewishness. “Not that she even really felt Jewish—it was only a word to her, a word that pushed her down.”
For her part, Molly, stuck between the need to fit in with American society and pressures from her adoptive parents, wants to abandon her identity and play on Yom Kippur like a “normal kid, forget about being Jewish.”
In Anna’s increasingly desperate attempts to change the future and the past, personal needs collide with social responsibility: Should she save Molly and Raisa or stop Chernobyl? This is Barenbaum’s overarching question, exemplified by her use of quotes from Pirkei Avot to introduce each section of the book, the final one opening with Hillel’s famous words: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”
Elizabeth Edelglass is a fiction writer, poet and book author.