The Age of Miracles
Karen Thompson Walker (Facebook) (Twitter)
Random House (2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0812992970 / 9780812992977)
Fiction, 288 pages
Source: Purchased e-book (eISBN 9780679644385)
Reason for reading: Personal
“We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.
“We did not sense, at first, the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.
“We were distracted, back then, by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Seconds beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours too weren’t still pooling into days, each the same, fixed length known to every human being.
On a seemingly ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer, gravity is affected, the environment is thrown into disarray. Yet as she struggles to navigate an ever-shifting landscape, Julia is also coping with the normal disasters of everyday life—the fissures in her parents’ marriage, the loss of old friends, the hopeful anguish of first love, the bizarre behavior of her grandfather who, convinced of a government conspiracy, spends his days obsessively cataloging his possessions. As Julia adjusts to the new normal, the slowing inexorably continues.
Comments: When the gospel of empowerment and self-actualization is preached everywhere you turn, sometimes it’s hard to accept that an awful lot of what happens in life is just..life. Most of what happens around us is, like it or not, out of our control, and much of it is beyond our understanding; we just have to find ways to live with and within it. Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel, The Age Of Miracles, derives much of its power as a story from the way it conveys this truth.
As if the changes of approaching adolescence weren’t already challenging and confusing enough for Julia, the physical world around her is changing in a way that makes even less sense. The earth’s rotation is perceptibly slowing; scientists can only make their best guesses as to the cause for it, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to reverse it. The length of an Earth day stretches from twenty-four hours to twenty-seven, then to thirty, then to forty, and keeps going, and the extremes of climate change become compressed within those lengthening days. Governments impose “clock time” in order to keep people and institutions functioning in much the way they always have, but there are pockets of resistance–the ”real-timers” who try to adjust their bodies, and their lives, to the new natural rhythms, and are pushed into fringe communities because of it. Julia’s mother becomes afflicted by physical ailments–”the syndrome”–as the slowing continues, and her father is increasingly, mysteriously absent.
I found The Age Of Miracles a difficult book to drop into a slot. It’s a matter-of-fact coming-of-age story, seemingly poised to attract both adult-fiction and YA reading audiences, set in an environment that’s familiar and unrecognizable at the same time…and Walker seems content to leave many of the mysteries of that environment unexplored. The “slowing” is somehow a both catalyst and a mere backdrop, and isn’t explained or developed anywhere near enough to call the novel “science fiction,” but I can see how it might be shelved there. Its protagonist/narrator is clearly several years beyond Julia’s age during the events of the story; it’s not stated just how much later it is when she relates them, but the voice is much closer to adult than child.
The Age Of Miracles got mixed responses from readers when it was published last summer, and I suspect that some of those reactions arose from frustration over the difficulty of categorizing it. I think that’s one of its biggest strengths, and one of the main sources of its appeal for me. I appreciated that Walker chose to focus the story as she did, and by telling it through such a young narrator, I think she made it clearer that it wasn’t about getting at the “why;” it was about adapting to and living with the not knowing why. This is an ambitious and unusual debut, and I’m curious to see what this author does next.