Intricately Purposeful: On Rachel Barenbaum’s “Atomic Anna”

Sara Shukla admires Barenbaum’s ambitious second novel, “Atomic Anna.”

By Sara ShuklaApril 5, 2022

    Intricately Purposeful: On Rachel Barenbaum’s “Atomic Anna”

    A story of three generations of women and the secret history that binds them, Rachel Barenbaum’s ambitious second novel, Atomic Anna, moves seamlessly through time and space, from the Russian Revolution to late-20th-century Philadelphia. It’s propulsive and intimate and surprisingly relevant to these past two years, when time has so often felt sharp and amorphous all at once.


    We meet Anna, brilliant Soviet scientist and chief engineer at Chernobyl, just as the meltdown begins in 1986. Anna herself misses it. She “didn’t hear the explosion or feel the catastrophic shudder as Reactor No. 4 ripped apart, its insides flayed, releasing the most dangerous substances known to man. Nor did she witness the shock of light that stabbed the dark, because at that exact moment Anna tore through time. It was her first jump – and it was an accident.”


    This is page one, and Barenbaum doesn’t linger. Time is precious.


    The explosion delivers Anna to a research station on a snow-covered mountaintop. Inside, her daughter Molly, now an adult, is dying. It’s December 8, 1992, and Molly implores Anna to “save Raisa,” Anna’s granddaughter. Anna has never met Raisa, and hasn’t seen Molly since she was a baby. Back in 1986, Anna sets to building a makeshift time machine: a controlled explosion in a metal box and an amplifier she wears slung around her shoulder in a satchel. It makes gamma waves expand “as if the space around her were a pond and she had dropped a pebble.” She can travel through the ripples.


    What follows is an intricately purposeful zig zag, as Anna passes back through time and, to stave off tragedy, tries to alter the trajectories of Chernobyl and the lives of her daughter and granddaughter. It’s a second chance of sorts, an opportunity to make up for lost time by jumping through it.


    If Barenbaum’s debut A Bend In The Stars is read as a quest — a race against time and across the Russian countryside as both World War I and the solar eclipse of 1914 loom over the heroes and their fates — this novel triples down on the author’s ability to see history through the lens of the fantastic as much as the human, to go, like her characters, “beyond what logic dictates.” It’s a leap, and she lands it.


    The story moves with precision and purpose between timelines and characters. In 1964 Philadelphia, adolescent Molly buries her pain in drawing comics. She invents Atomic Anna from limited knowledge of her origin story; she learns Anna is a scientist who stayed behind while her closest friends, Yulia and Lazar, fled the USSR with baby Molly. But it’s alcohol and drugs that make Molly feel impenetrable, dulling the generational trauma that gnaws at her gut and, in time, prevents her from being the mother Raisa needs.


    Raisa sees elegance in math, stubbornly resists the struggle toward a forced solution, and carries the novel’s heart in a coming of age that propels her from the Little Russia neighborhood of her grandparents’ butcher shop into an awakening of the freedom inherent in claiming space for oneself, and toward a love that in the smallest moments took my breath away.


    The language moves with elegant urgency. Decades pass in a paragraph, but the prose never feels rushed; it is precise, lyrical, and imbued with emotional clarity. Chapters are sub-headed with a countdown to the day Molly dies on Mount Aragats, and gradually we  learn what choices, made and unmade, deliver each character to this day.


    Moments between characters are achingly intimate without being sentimental or slowing the pace. Even the time machine takes shape efficiently and without fanfare. Anna learns there are rules: “First, she could jump for only two hours. After that, the amplifier pulled her back to her starting point. Second, she could jump to a particular year only two times before the ripple became too flat to enter or leave again.” Also, “two versions of the same person from different time periods couldn’t be in close proximity to one another.” Anna can’t simply return and tell her past self what to do. She has to connect, quickly, with those whose lives she’s trying to alter.


    Haunted by Anna’s absence and the silence surrounding it, Molly struggles to believe in her own art, while Raisa, self-taught, finds beauty and order in math. Through Raisa’s awe and Barenbaum’s skill, the physics here is beautiful, playful even.


    It's common to read prose that worships prose. Less so to read lines that imbue math and physics with such range: here theories and radio waves contain comfort, stability, power, hope, and possibility.


    Raisa explains Einstein’s theories of relativity to Daniel, with whom she works in her grandparents’ shop. She says, “It defies logic. In order to understand it, we have to think beyond what we know.” Yet this way of thinking, of working, is a privilege. Anna chafed under the watchful eyes of Soviet superiors. Molly struggles to feel validity as an artist, in part because Lazar and Yulia, humbled by their own lived experience, fear it leaves her vulnerable. Raisa, however, is able to bring an artist’s mind to math, experimenting and seeing beyond what logic dictates.


    After Molly leaves and then returns to Philadelphia, Lazar reassures her, saying, “We know more than most that you can always restart your life.” Yulia and Lazar had to see beyond what they thought was possible as well, both to survive in the USSR and to start anew in America. After each jump in time, Anna returns to a Mount Aragats that’s changed, an altered timeline. She has to discern what, to her, is new. The question is, can Anna ultimately bring about a restart for all of them? Or is it as her colleague warns: “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should”?


    As we look to a possible restart in our pandemic timeline, a rebirth of sorts, we ask questions like, what’s the new normal? What are we bringing along with us? What trauma, distrust, insecurity? What new love? How are we, like Anna, keeping our boots on, just in case someone comes knocking on the door in the night?


    With Barenbaum’s care and focus, Atomic Anna is about moving through uncertainty and navigating trauma as much as it is about moving through time. It’s about the choices we make as well as the ones we don’t, how we show up for those we love, and how the most courageous acts of superheroes are rooted in vulnerability and expressions of love.


    ¤


    Sara Shukla is a frequent contributor to WBUR’s Cognoscenti, has short humor published by McSweeney’s and elsewhere and interviews novelists for the craft blog Dead Darlings. She’s a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program and the University of Virginia. 

    LARB Contributor

    Sara Shukla is a frequent contributor to WBUR’s Cognoscenti, has short humor published by McSweeney’s and elsewhere and interviews novelists for the craft blog Dead Darlings. She’s a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program and the University of Virginia. 

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