Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Age Of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

"We didn't notice right away. We couldn't feel it.
We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin....

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."

Eleven year old Julia wakes on a Saturday morning that begins like many other Saturday mornings in the past; her friend Hanna is over for a sleepover, she has a soccer game in the morning, and her parents are at the dining room table reading the newspaper. But this Saturday is soon unlike any previous Saturday nor like the ones that are to come. Julia and her mom and dad, along with everyone else learn that the Earth's rotation has gradually been slowing and the days are getting longer. No one knows for sure why this is happening or specifically what will happen as the days lengthen. All they know is that if the earth's rotation continues to slow they can expect radical changes in the weather, earthquakes and tsunamis, possibly mass plant and animal die-outs with  the oceans shifting toward the poles.

Each of the characters respond to the impending crisis in different ways. Julia's mom, a former actress begins hoarding food and other necessities, and she soon begins suffering from slowing syndrome. Her father, a doctor, generally a more calm and cerebral person, seems to be coping well until Julia makes a shattering discovery about where her father has been spending time. Her grandfather at first believes the situation is a diversion from military action in the Middle East. Julia, who tends to be quiet and watchful, has more and more difficulty fitting in with her classmates. It seems, crisis or not, being eleven years old is just a difficult time of life.

As the days get longer, society divides into people who live on "real-time" and those who follow the 24 hour clock. For the latter like Julia's family, this eventually means getting up at night to catch the bus to go to school in the dark or trying to sleep during the day in full sunlight. In San Diego, California, where Julia lives, as the days lengthen, the sun bakes the plants and crops. Birds begin dying, the oceans change, foods that were once common become scarce, forests die and catch fire and insects proliferate.

Humankind continues to struggle on however, as do Julia and her classmates in their own little corner of the world. But gradually society begins to fall apart. More and more children stop attending school, and things that people once took for granted no longer exist. Food must be grown in greenhouses and power, rationed. Despite all this, Julia meets her first boyfriend, Seth, and they struggle along together trying to understand what has befallen them, what their place will be in society, and what the future holds for them. Some of the discussions between Seth and Julia are particularly haunting; they are a generation facing the possibility of no future in a dying world. And so they ask one another which way they would prefer to die. Walker does a great job of focusing on Julia's reality; that of an eleven year old dealing with the inexplicable loss of her best friend, the alienation of her classmates, a first crush, and her mother and father's struggling marriage. This is typical pre-adolescent fare set in an apocalyptic time.

The Age of Miracles follows in detail a year of Julia's life as the catastrophe deepens when the Earth's rotation gradually slows and the days get longer and longer. The last chapter tells how things have fallen apart and generally what life is like on Earth for Julia as an adult of at least 23 years of age and other survivors. It is a tale of survival and adaptation yet the ending is depressing and provides no closure for the reader. In some ways it reads like a eulogy to a dying world.

Overall, this was good read but I felt in some ways Karen Walker did not develop this story to its full potential. Slowing of the earth's rotation, especially to the extent revealed in this novel, would have profound effects on the earth and all life inhabiting the planet. Walker tries somewhat to convey this but often it comes across in Julia's narrative as vague and muted. Other times we feel the full force of what Julia and her family are experiencing especially when the birds begin to die off and also later on when the magnetic storms begin to batter the atmosphere.The Age of Miracles is really two storylines; a coming of age and an apocalyptic disaster that mostly works. In the end though, the reader is left feeling distraught and hopeless.

Book Details:
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Toronto: Bond Street Books       2012
272 pp.

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