The Age of Miracles: A Novel

  • Karen Thompson Walker
  • Random House
  • 288 pp.

In this lyrical speculative tale, the slowing of the earth brings disorienting changes to humankind while the young protagonist struggles with the normal changes of adolescence.

Karen Thompson Walker will be speaking at Politics & Prose on Thursday, July 12. More information is here.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Robelen

Later, I would come to think of those first days as the time when we learned as a species that we had worried over the wrong things. …

Thus Julia comments early in Karen Thompson Walker’s stunning debut novel The Age of Miracles, as she looks back to a time when she was 11 years old and mighty things were taking place on earth. Julia is our guide in this intelligent story centered around a young girl’s dawning adulthood during an extraordinary and harrowing planetary event — the slowing of the earth’s rotation on its axis.

There’d been a change, they said, a slowing, and that’s what we called it from then on: the slowing.

On a sunny Saturday morning, in a Los Angeles suburb circa 2012, Julia, her parents and her best friend are up early, playing with cats, reading the paper. Her mother runs out for bagels and returns demanding they turn on the television to hear the reports of a strange natural phenomenon that have been interrupting regular programming on the car radio and elsewhere. The news is riveting and people all over stop and stare at any available screen to get what scant information there is. Reactions around the world range from awe to disbelief to claims of “I-told-you-so.”

We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.

No apparent reason for this unnatural occurrence exists. At first, only a few minutes have added themselves to each morning and evening. Most people continue as normal, pretending that nothing has changed. However, the slowing continues, and the days, as measured from sunrise to sunrise, grow longer at an alarming pace. Fear sets in. Some, including Julia’s mother, start stockpiling supplies and fortifying their homes. Religious fanatics, preparing for Armageddon, collect in far-off compounds, as do a few other fringe souls who embrace the new day, sleeping longer and working longer.

This was middle school, the age of miracles, the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer. …

But the slowing does not alter the biological clocks of adolescence that keep on ticking for Julia and her classmates. Her best friend’s family has taken flight with their church, leaving timid, bookish Julia to endure solitary meals and casual humiliation. She finds herself hanging with Gabby, a Goth-in-training, and Michaela, whose mother knows a thing or two about sex as survival tool, and Seth, a scientist-in-training whose mother is dying. Sixth grade is as painful as ever and the global cataclysm is just one more weird and awkward pubescent change. As they navigate the shifting world without much guidance from the adults who are absent or consumed by their own panic, the children here echo the protagonists of other post-apocalyptic teen tales such as Harlan Ellison’s short story “A Boy and His Dog” and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. On their own, the kids are free to explore booze, bullying and bras and Julia learns a thing or two about sex, love and survival.

It was as if the slowing had slowed our judgment too, letting loose our inhibitions.

Eventually the slowing takes away what little certainty there seemed to be in Julia’s world. Her father withdraws, her parents’ once solid marriage fractures, and her grandfather speaks of conspiracies. Julia herself takes to spying on neighbors and watches her sensible, grounded piano teacher dancing alone in her living room during one long night.

We were living under a new gravity, too subtle for our minds to register, but our bodies were already subject to its sway.

Despite everything, though, human beings are resilient. They always manage to find a new normal. Narrator, observer, participant and prophet, Julia presents the past as once-upon-a-time, recounting with quiet passion the changes both in the earth and in her relationships. She speaks with wisdom, nostalgia and longing. Much like Emily, near the end of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” Julia, in The Age of Miracles, is looking back at her almost-12-year-old self, who realized, even then, that life and nature were fleeting, who marveled at the closest thing possible to a preserved moment in time — the light of a star that might have died long ago — and wondered if she could have that, too.

But I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different — unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.

The Age of Miracles is a remarkable envisioning of the breakdown of time as we know it, coupled with a fine exploration of children trying to break out of childhood, believing they have all the time in the world. The slowing has brought dangers no one had seen coming but now control the world. With logical simplicity, Walker lays out the natural consequences of ever-lengthening periods of light and dark for the earth and all its forms of life. Likewise, she cracks open a window to the pre-teen mind, where consequences are never understood, even by the most clear-thinking tweens, until it is too late.

In the end, what drives this book is the event — the slowing. Walker’s well-articulated imagining blurs the line between so-called literary fiction and speculative fiction. (The story includes a lovely nod to Ray Bradbury.) Her writing shines. “Eucalyptus trees swayed like sea anemones in the wind.”  Her words linger in the mind.  “We would fall out of sync with the sun almost immediately. Light would be unhooked from day, darkness unchained from night.” Characters in the book certainly speculate around the causes of the slowing — even suggesting earth is taking revenge for all the stress laid upon it by humankind. That may be true.

What is also true is that this author, by infusing her speculative, cautionary and absorbing tale with inspired language, has created an engrossing piece of fiction that uses scientific possibilities as a springboard for art. Walker has shown us, clearly yet lyrically, that time may slow, but it cannot be stopped, only marked.

And still the earth turned, and the days passed, and the constellations wound across the sky.

Elizabeth Robelen is a member of The Independent’s editorial board.

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