My friend Michele heard about The Age of Miracles: a novel by Karen Thompson Walker and thought I might like it. I’ve been a bit gun shy about new books since I lost a month to the Game of Thrones series – books that are shaping up to be about as meandering and slow-developing, if better conceived and written, as the terrible Clan of the Cave Bear books. Once I saw that The Age of Miracles was a short, stand alone book, I checked out the sample on kindle and then downloaded the rest of the book. I read the entire thing yesterday.
The Age of Miracles recounts a year in the life of Julia, a 6th grader in suburban Southern California. The typical middle schools difficulties Julia experiences are unfolding in the context of the end of the world, literally. Suddenly, and for no discernable reason the rotation of the earth is slowing rapidly – increasing the number of hours in a day, affecting gravity, the electromagnetic field and ultimately, the possibility for life on the planet. The story is recounted retrospectively by a 20-something year-old Julia who has lived with the fundamental uncertainty of The Slowing (as it is called) so long that it feels odd to remember a time when the rotation of the earth was dependable. The survivors hold out little hope for the long term survival of humanity or, for that matter, life on the planet, but The Slowing goes on for so long that even the inevitable end no longer feels like a crisis.
As I read it The Age of Miracles is really about the end of innocence and transition to adulthood. It is about learning about and living with your own mortality and the fact that the world as you know it will pass as well. It is about experiencing loss – dissolved and abandoned relationships, the passing of elders, learning that your parents are fallible and that their relationship is vulnerable and imperfect. So, although I initially thought the book might feel like it was a sci-fi novel in the genre of Ray Bradbury (and, in fact, the review my friend sent made it sound that way), in fact it was much more in the tradition of McCarthy’s The Road (but less horrifying and more simple), in which the contextual details are omitted and overshadowed by the human story. Herein lies the problem because I didn’t find Julia’s story very compelling – certainly not compelling enough to make it OK that we didn’t really learn much about The Slowing. I think her voice was a little too dispassionate and analytical but I also think that there wasn’t enough to her story. How did life go on, for both Julia and humanity, after 6th grade? Why was that year the year that mattered – the story she needed to tell? Why were we hearing from her in her early 20s apart from the fact that the temporal distance allowed her to say that things that occurred then (e.g. the internet going down) became permanent? Despite the importance of that year to her, it didn’t seem that her understanding of it had really developed much in the years that followed.
So, The Age of Miracles: a novel. Meh. It won’t knock your socks off but there are worse ways to spend an evening.