cover image Atomic Anna

Atomic Anna

Rachel Barenbaum. Grand Central, $28 (448p) ISBN 978-1-5387-3486-5

Barenbaum (A Bend in the Stars) burnishes her reputation as an up-and-coming talent with this audacious time travel story. Anna Berkova, a Soviet nuclear scientist who works at Chernobyl, is asleep on the morning of the meltdown in 1986. The catastrophe transports her to 1992 Mount Aragats, Armenia, where she finds a trail of blood leading to her dying daughter, Manya, who’s been shot. Before dying, Manya reveals that the amplifier her mother was working on had pulled her through a ripple in space-time, and that Berkova must travel farther into the future to save a teenage granddaughter, Raisa, she’s never known. Barenbaum then unfolds the three women’s stories, each of which is laced with tragedy and unfulfilled aspirations. Chapter headings counting down to Manya’s death maintain tension, as her efforts to express herself as a comic book author with Atomic Anna, a superhero modeled on what she knows of her mother, play out against her battle with substance abuse. Raisa, a math prodigy, also must overcome challenges, such as being placed in foster care after Manya’s conviction for drug possession, to reach her potential. The threads build toward a deeply satisfying denouement, and the author uses the sci-fi plot device to explore parent-child relationships and questions about the morality of changing the past. Barenbaum dares greatly, and succeeds. Eve Attermann, WME. (Apr.)