To be honest, I wasn’t going to write about The Age of Miracles at first. I mean, I enjoyed reading it, but I didn’t feel particularly blown away by it, and it’s already gotten a ton of press. It was on the New York Times bestseller list. It does not need my brain to give it any extra attention. And books with the first ten pages of the paperback full of delirious blurbs tend to just annoy me. All that exuberance makes me want to put the book right back on the shelf.
It also makes me wonder if it sells enough books to make it worth the cost of throwing in the extra pages. Has anyone studied this? Has anyone been brought off the book-buying fence by “[t]he next big female novelist”? (Taken straight from the praise pages of this particular book, the only thing that blurb makes me want to do is stab the person who wrote it. Hats off to you, Rolling Stone, for making sure we know that women will always be “female novelists” and men will be regular novelists. Thanks for that.)
Fortunately, this purchase was the result of a birthday gift card to an online retailer, so these “stunning” and “transcendent” comments could not affect my decision to read this, a decision that was made, like pretty much every book-reading decision I make, somewhere in the depths of my mind after hearing rumours of the book in various online fora. And honestly, since everything about the actual packaging of this paperback (what is going on with that cover?? Random gold dots???) really turned me off, I have to say once again what a fortunate thing it was that I bought it in a place where I couldn’t notice all these things. Because it really is a story worth reading. And one that just won’t get out of my head, which is why I ended up writing about it here, after all, despite the blurbs and the bestsellerness and gold dots (really??).
The idea underlying and triggering the whole story is that the earth’s rotation is slowing down, making the days and nights longer, and messing the whole planet up. And 11-year-old Julia is witnessing it firsthand. It’s one of those novels that’s not much on story; essentially, the plot is something like: Julia gets older, has experiences, ends up wiser. It’s a coming-of-age story set against the end of the world. But it’s so great to see a book that is both a girl’s coming of age and a pretty great sci-fi story get so much mainstream attention. I think I have ranted previously about the lack of import given to the stories of girls discovering who they are and their place in the world, and this is one of those times when people are paying attention to just such a story. So if nothing else, Karen Thompson Walker deserves some high fives for that.
But she really deserves high fives for some serious writing chops. She manages to get right to the heart of the weirdness of the slowing with a single short paragraph: “New minutes surfaced everywhere. Time was harder to waste. The pace of living seemed to slow.” And the whole book is imbued with a kind of dreamy grittiness, if that makes any sense. Because Julia is still eleven and amazing, terrible, and beautiful things are happening to her, as they do to all 11-year-olds–she loses her best friend, she falls in love for the first time, she comes to understand her parents are human beings–but at the same time, the world is going totally crazy.
And I mean, totally crazy. Birds fall out of the sky, all the plants die, the earth’s magnetic field basically goes to hell. But all this is just a background to Julia growing up. And while I really liked Julia’s story and found her serious, studious voice extremely sympathetic and compelling, by the end of the book, I found myself wanting to read the other book in here, the one that’s the backdrop to Julia’s book. I mean, I really respect and appreciate Walker’s decision to show this new earth through the lens of Julia’s story, and it definitely works as a narrative technique, but I wanted more by the end.
This slowed earth is fascinating and there are so many parallels to be drawn with climate change on our non-slowed earth. She hints at the many social changes that come with the slowed earth and the way that each change comes ever-so-reluctantly, the slow boil of a frog. First, no one does anything; they just try to follow the sun rising and setting like always. Then, when the days turn into increasingly longer stretches of sunlight, it becomes apparent that the status quo will not do and “clock time” is declared. Regardless of what the sun and the planet are doing, human beings are going to keep on going on a 24-hour day. After a while, the slowing is such that several clock-time days pass in total darkness or total light, but people just stick to it, determined that this is the right/only course of action. When the magnetic field starts to go and solar radiation becomes deadly, people build radiation shelters.
Walker captures this adaptability of human beings so perfectly, but highlights that our adaptability is always a last-ditch effort. We don’t try to change things, we just accept each new encroachment on our old way of life as the thing we have to do now, without really questioning it. Of course, some people do question it and fight it, the “real-timers” who go off clock time in the belief that human beings can adapt just fine to the lengthening days and nights. But even the real timers sort of settle back and accept that this is the world we live in now.
If the story was told through a grown-up, perhaps we would have been able to see more of the havoc wreaked on societies around the world by the slowing of the earth’s rotation, more of the changes, more of the debates around what to do and the science of what exactly is happening. But the narrator is a girl approaching adolescence, so of course, she’s not really privy to that greater world, which means that neither are we. And maybe that works out for the best because The Age of Miracles left me wondering, long after I turned the last page. It left me living in that world. And that is basically the best way for any novel to end.