Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
It’s a little daunting to sit down to write a book review when the book’s jacket is covered with high praise from authors such as Nathan Englander, Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, and Amy Bloom. I have to wonder — did they see something in The Age of Miracles that I missed?
The Age of Miracles is a tale of global catastrophe. For reasons unknown, the earth’s rotation has slowed. The slowing, as people call it, starts as a small thing, as scientists announce that a full rotation of the earth is now 56 minutes longer than it should be. Days lengthen, with the rate of slowing increasing inexorably. The sun sets later and later; longer periods of daylight are followed by longer periods of night. People panic, adapt, panic, adapt some more. And life goes on.
Narrator Julia is 11 years old as these events unfold, but is narrating the story from some time later. The Age of Miracles often reads like a nostalgia piece, in many ways a typical coming of age story, where the young person at its center has her eyes opened to some of the harsh truths of life. Best friends don’t necessarily stay BFFs. Grown-ups aren’t always reliable or honest. Parents disappoint their children and fail to be enough to shelter their children from life’s dangers.
The author makes use of the 2nd person plural throughout, so that Julia is telling not only her own story, but the story of the end of civilization as it was.
In the hours that followed, we would worry and wait. We would guess and wonder and speculate. We would learn new words and new ways from the scientists and officials who paraded in and out of our living room through the television screen and the Internet. We would stalk the sun across our sky as we never had before.
Each new day, each further bit of slowing, brings new changes and challenges. World governments announce a commitment to staying on “clock-time”, continuing to structure human lives around a 24-hour cycle. Soon everyone has black-out curtains so they can sleep while the sun is shining, and school children line up for the bus as the first stars are still appearing in the night sky. A rift in the community forms as some people decide to live in “real-time”, waking and sleeping by the rising and setting of the sun. Real-timers are viewed as anarchists, hippies, throw-backs to a wild past, and are shunned or worse. Suicide cults blossom. People hoard perishables… and then they wait.
To an extent, although The Age of Miracles takes place over the course of a year, we never do see the full impact of the disaster. The effects become more and more dramatic as time passes, but life is still manageable, at least in Julia’s little world. Her mother comes down with slowing syndrome, a common condition caused by changes in gravity, with symptoms such as fainting, dizziness, and nausea. Coastal homes are evacuated and within weeks, are completely flooded, as the slowing causes worldwide changes in currents and tides. There is a massive bird die-out, as the gravitational changes wreak havoc with birds’ internal systems. All agriculture must eventually move into indoor, artificially lit environments, as nothing can grow with the extreme periods of heat and sun followed by long hours of darkness and cold.
And yet, Julia goes to school every day, worries about being friendless and not fitting in, crushes on a cute boy, and tries to figure out what really matters to her. She worries about puberty and growing up, worries about appearing childish next to her make-up and high heel-wearing classmates, and frets about the strain in her parents’ marriage. She begins to see her parents’ flaws, and reflects often on their physical signs of aging — her former-model mother has gray roots, her physician father, always perfectly put together, has wrinkles around his eyes.
The writing is often lovely and lyrical. The author has a keen eye for description of the every day, and evokes a particular time and place with many small details that add up to a complete portrait of life in a small southern California town on the brink of permanent change.
I didn’t quite buy Julia’s voice or perspective in The Age of Miracles. Julia’s experiences, at age 11, seemed out of place. The issues with boys, social status, and cliques, as written, would have felt more authentic to me if the children involved were at least two or three years older. It’s a neat trick to have Julia tell her own story as a 20-something-year-old looking back, but I couldn’t believe many of the observations attributed to 11-year-old Julia as truly coming from a girl that age.
The other flaw with this narrative choice is the diminution of the drama — we know that Julia survives, because she makes it clear that she’s telling us about events from her past. Much has changed, and things look pretty grim, but as a point of fact, Julia’s life has gone on, and so has much of the world’s. Nothing ever feels that immediate or urgent, as it’s all presented as a memory.
This is one of several global disaster/end of the world books that I’ve read lately. In The Age of Miracles, the disaster is almost background, as the main story is about Julia saying good-bye to her childhood and moving forward into a brand new world. An interesting choice, but not entirely convincing or satisying for me.
I would recommend The Age of Miracles, but can’t say that I loved it.
For another take, check out the io9 review here, which questions whether The Age of Miracles works as a science fiction novel.