The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker, Random House, 2012, 320 pages
This book was a breeze to get through – the plot unravels so smoothly you could sit down to read it and be halfway through before you’ve even glanced up at the clock. At least that’s what I did. This coming of age, speculative fiction novel is told through the eyes of Julia, a young adolescent just beginning to deal with the insecurities of that tumultuous stage of childhood. One day, scientists report that the earth’s rotation has slowed, suddenly and without explanation. Days and nights become longer – one day stretches from 24 hours to 25, 27.5, 30, 40 and more. Clocks and times and schedules are reset, social change takes place, health problems arise, relationships are strained. Seemingly mundane aspects of life become unhinged, and the reader is given the perspective of a child, on the verge of growing up, as she learns how to cope with the world around her and her own sense of self.
This is Karen Thompson Walker’s debut, and for a first novel it got quite a bit of pre-release hype. Apparently Random House paid a pretty nice sum for the publishing rights, an unusual thing to do for a first-time author. This got my interest, and the plot definitely didn’t sound boring either. It helps that it also has a simple, eye-catching cover, but seeing as this was the first book I read on an e-reader, I didn’t really have a chance to appreciate it.
“…what I felt first was not fear but a thrill… the shimmer of an unexpected thing,” Julia tells us early in the story. For me, the most compelling aspect is the constant sense of fear and helplessness in such everyday situations as going to school or soccer practice. If the sun rises and sets at different times from the clock time you have always known, when do you go to school? To work? In the middle of the night? Do you call it a night the brightness of the afternoon sun? To think about the entire world as you know it falling apart – time, world clocks, the length of your days, the weight of gravity, the growth of vegetables and plants and food, not to mention the relationships you think you’re sure of – is chilling. Not knowing what’s going to happen, and knowing that you as a person and you as the human race have no way of controlling or guaranteeing your survival. The world very well could be near it’s end. How can life go back to normal, when the most base of normal certainties about the world have been removed?
Not only that, but it all happens very subtly. This isn’t a novel of dramatic mayhem, but rather one of quiet inner detail. Time becomes a danger and a source of anxiety, and the characters learn to live with a growing sense of despair.
This book is very quotable. Thompson Walker’s writing is succinctly poetic. I highlighted many thought-provoking lines throughout the first several chapters, especially. But I found that it slowed down a bit (oops, no pun intended) after awhile. It’s hard to keep a plot about a massive earth-changing natural disaster going forever – at some point, it has to end, or the changes have to be reversed, or…something. Even the poetic turns of phrase become sparser, or just get a bit old. I was hooked from the start, but perhaps the implausability of some aspects of the situation caught up with me. Nevertheless, I don’t think the “slowing” (as the earth’s declining rotation speed is referred to in the novel) is meant to be the centre of the plot. This is a book about the fragility of relationships, growing up, insecurities, love and fear, and dealing with everyday life in the face of such fearful uncertainty. It is this uncertainty that drives you to keep reading, and to think about how you would face such fears yourself.