In ‘Atomic Anna,’ the Nuclear Disaster in Chernobyl Launches a Time-Traveling Adventure

By Rachel Barenbaum

Timing is everything, or so they say. In the case of Rachel Barenbaum’s new novel, “Atomic Anna”which begins on April 26, 1986, with Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4 ripping apart, “releasing the most dangerous substances known to man” — timing is quite literally everything: The blast sends Anna Berkova, the chief engineer at the infamous nuclear facility, on an accidental jump through time.

Anna wakes on a snow-covered mountaintop with her head splitting in pain and her hands “burned and raw.” She heads for shelter, where she encounters a stranger lying in a puddle of blood, claiming to be her daughter, Manya. Manya tells Anna that it’s now Dec. 8, 1992, adding cryptically that they’ve failed. “You have to try again,” she says. “For Raisa. You promised to save Raisa.”

“Who is Raisa?” Anna asks.

“Your granddaughter,” Manya tells her.

With that, Anna is sucked back through time, returning to the moments just after the nuclear explosion, with “radioactive ash coating the lawn, the streets and cars, and worst of all, the people.” But her trip to the future has given Anna two crucial things: a photograph that Manya has slipped her, which acts as a reminder that Anna’s voyage through time was real, and a new purpose to “put the world back the way it should be.” Initially, this means going back in time to stop the explosion at the nuclear plant, but, as she weaves back and forth across decades, Anna begins to realize that every decision has an impact, some of which reverberate through generations. She also learns some key rules of time travel: She can go back to any given time only twice, she can stay for only two hours and she can’t ever come too close to her previous self.

One of the many wonderful things about “Atomic Anna,” a book about Chernobyl, yes, but also about comic books, the power of math, finding one’s truth, and love, both biological and found, is the core group of women who ground it. We shift from Anna to her daughter, Manya — renamed Molly in America — who has grown up in Philadelphia with adoptive parents, refuseniks whom Anna helped to escape Russia. Then there’s Raisa, Molly’s daughter, who rivals her biological grandmother in terms of mathematical genius and spirit. We peer into their lives and trajectories as Anna moves through time, trying to figure out how to set things right and how to convey her needs to her loved ones, even as things inevitably change when she touches the past. The novel is masterfully plotted — one has to imagine an enormous whiteboard was involved as the author charted out what any given move might set in motion, each outcome with its own stack of connected dominoes.

Given Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, the takeover of Chernobyl and the devastation that has occurred since, Barenbaum’s timing seems nearly prophetic. Of course, “Atomic Anna” is about far more than time travel, or even war, nudging us to consider how we might change the destructive courses we seem bent on, whether as individuals or countries. What would it really take to fix things for good?

Timing might be everything, but, of course, time is not infinite. We have only so many hours to reconcile our pasts, to heal our inherent brokenness, to move into the future. As Barenbaum reminds us, if we don’t acknowledge our truths and change the course we’re on, soon enough, it will simply be too late. Time will be up.

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