The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
2012 Random House
Finished on March 17, 2016
Rating: 4.5/5 (Very Good!)
Luminous and haunting, The Age of Miracles is an unforgettable debut novel about coming of age during extraordinary times, about people going on with their lives in an era of profound uncertainty.
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 family, the loss of friends, the hopeful anguish of love. As Julia adjusts to the new normal, the slowing inexorably continues.
“A stunner from the first page.” ~ Justin Cronin
Daylight Savings Time remains a controversial topic here in the U.S., and while I hate to lose an hour of productivity (and sleep!) I do love the longer days of spring and summer. After dinner, my husband and I like to go for walks, bike rides or simply enjoy a cocktail on our front porch. Imagine, though, if our days suddenly shifted from 24 hours in length to 28 or 30, or even, as much as 48! Not only would the slowing of the earth’s rotation disrupt our normal sleep patterns and the normal routines of society (government, work, school, etc.), but it would also cause serious problems for the tides, plant life and the earth’s magnetic field. Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel explores these situations, convincing this reader of the plausible outcome of such a disaster. Suffice it to say, I was just a little bit scared.
We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.Since this novel is set in San Diego, I found myself reminiscing about my childhood. I moved to Southern California shortly after my 11th birthday, so not only did I relate to Julia’s experiences in sixth grade, but I recognized the locations to which Walker refers. As a matter of fact, if I were able to chat with the author, I’d love to see if I could guess her exact setting based on the details of her narrative. Like her protagonist, she grew up in San Diego and I can almost speculate where she spent her youth. I found it very easy to picture Julia and Seth hiking through the sage brush-filled canyons, heading toward the beach after hearing the news of a beached whale. I, too, have walked those canyons.
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.
But there were those who would later claim to have recognized the disaster before the rest of us did. These were the night workers, the graveyard shifters, the stockers of shelves, and the loaders of ships, the drivers of big-rig trucks, or else they were the bearers of different burdens: the sleepless and the troubled and the sick. These people were accustomed to waiting out the night. Through bloodshot eyes, a few did detect a certain persistence of darkness on the mornings leading up to the news, but each mistook if for the private misperception of a lonely, rattled mind.
On the sixth of October, the experts went public. This, of course, is the day we all remember. There’d been a change, they said, a slowing, and that’s what we called it from then on: the slowing.
Our days had grown by fifty-six minutes in the night.
We were Californians and thus accustomed to the motions of the earth. We understood that the ground could shift and shudder. We kept batteries in our flashlights and gallons of water in our closets. We accepted that fissures might appear in our sidewalks. Swimming pools sometimes sloshed like bowls of water. We were well practiced at crawling beneath tabletops, and we knew to beware of flying glass. At the start of every school year, we each packed a large ziplock bag full of non-perishables in case The Big One stranded us at school. But we Californians were no more prepared for this particular calamity than those who had built their homes on more stable ground.
This was middle school, the age of miracles, the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove. Our first flaws were emerging, but they were being corrected. Blurry vision could be fixed invisibly with the magic of the contact lens. Crooked teeth were pulled straight with braces. Spotty skin could be chemically cleared. Some girls were turning beautiful. A few boys were growing tall. I knew I still looked like a child.On gravity:
We were living under a new gravity, too subtle for our minds to register, but our bodies were already subject to its sway. In the weeks that followed, as the days continued to expand, I would find it harder and harder to kick a soccer ball across a field. Quarterbacks found that footballs didn’t fly as far as they used to. Home run hitters slipped into slumps. Pilots would have to retrain themselves to fly. Every falling thing fell faster to the ground.On snow in California:
“Holy shit,” said my mother in her green bathrobe.The Age of Miracles is not categorized as a Young Adult (YA) book, but it is a book I can recommend to teens as well as adults. It’s one I will recommend to book groups, as there are so many thought-provoking situations to discuss. How would you react to the longer days of sunlight and conversely, longer nights, as the darkness bleeds into the middle of what used to be mid-day? Would you try to stay on “clock time” or follow others who attempt to live in sync with the rising and setting of the sun, even if that means staying awake for two full days?
I looked out the window: snow.
This was California, sea level, spring.
Five inches had fallen while we slept, and it was still snowing. Temperatures had been dropping further and further as each darkness stretched longer. Now the neighborhood shimmered, bluish in the moonlight: sugarcoated cars, fences frosted white, the terracotta roofs encrusted in snow. The sidewalks looked repaved. The artificial lawns had been swallowed whole overnight in one smooth sheet of clean, creamy white. Our street sparkled.
Seth showed up on my porch in a red ski parka I’d never seen before and a frayed knit cap, which sat crooked on his head. Snowflakes were melting on his shoulders.
“We have to go sledding,” he said. He held up the blue boogie board he’d carried down from his house. […]
We were beach kids, sunshine kids. We did not know the properties of snow. I had never seen it fall, never knew how soft if felt at first, how easily it collapsed beneath feet, or the particular sound of that crunch. I never knew until then that snow made everything quiet, somehow silencing all the world’s noise.
As I read the author’s conversation with Kate Medina (Random House Executive Vice President, Associate Publisher and Executive Editorial Director) I read Walker’s response to Medina’s question about her research, which is so realistically rendered. Walker says,
In general, I wanted my book to seem as real as possible. I recently read a Guardian interview with the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, who said that his books were about “the possibility of the impossible.” He explained that even if the premise of a book seemed “impossible,” it was important to him that the development of that premise be logical and rational. That’s exactly the way I wanted The Age of Miracles to function.Go figure! I loved Saramago’s novel, Blindness, which aroused a visceral fear similar to that of Walker’s catastrophic disaster in The Age of Miracles.
I loved this book! Part coming-of-age, part dystopic thriller, I couldn’t read fast enough. In some ways, The Age of Miracles is a quiet novel. Unlike The Dog Stars (Peter Heller), The Fifth Wave (Rick Yancey) or The Passage (Justin Cronin), the central disaster of Walker’s magnificent story does not involve a pandemic or an attack on earth by aliens or zombies. Other than some aggression shown toward the “real-timers,” this isn’t a violent book. It’s the unknown that’s so terrifying. I highly recommend this compulsively readable and highly imaginative novel. I can’t wait to read another book by Karen Thompson Walker!