Review: The Age of Miracles / Author: Karen Thompson Walker / Publisher: Simon and Schuster / Release Date: Out Now
It’s often the case that the very best end-of-the-world stories aren’t those where the planet is invaded by aliens or smashed to pieces by cosmic debris, torn apart by earthquakes or plunged into a new Ice Age. Sometimes the ‘quiet catastrophes’ are the ones which have the most lasting impact and linger longer in the memory than any number of killer plagues, zombie apocalypses or extra-terrestrial hordes. So it is with Karen Thompson Walker’s debut, a terrifically confident and irresistible novel where the world is quite literally running down against the backdrop of an 11 year-old girl coming of age – her ‘age of miracles’ – as the human race edges slowly towards extinction.
Julia’s just an ordinary girl living with an ordinary family in a fairly ordinary Californian town. She’s a loner with few friends but with a crush on fellow schoolmate Seth, who barely notices her. Her sleepy life begins to change as, with neither warning nor explanation, the earth’s rotation begins to slow. Days get longer, nights get darker. As each day passes, the rotation increases and minutes and eventually hours are added to the length of a normal day. Julia goes about her business chronicling the changes and her family's reactions to their new environment. As Julia stumbles awkwardly into adolescence, society begins to fracture, the government trying to paper over the cracks and encouraging people to adapt even as birds drop out of the sky and grass and crops wither. Julia begins to understand more about her family and the human condition as she comes to terms with herself and the changing world around her.
If The Age of Miracles sounds like a dour and dry read, it really isn’t. It’s a joyous, absorbing and oddly life-affirming piece despite the doomy nature of its underlying theme. Tonally it evokes Nevil Shute’s seminal On the Beach – a society trying to carry on and live a normal life, turning a blind eye to the disaster which is approaching – and the story of Julia and her troubled family is as compelling and interesting as the tales of mankind’s battles to stay alive in a world slowly running down. Walker’s characters are vivid and realistic and her no-nonsense prose is stark, direct and often hauntingly poetic. There’s no explanation for what’s happened to the planet but Walker details with a cool detachedness the associated – and well-researched – consequences of a world slowing down.
The Age of Miracles is a remarkable and sophisticated novel which is unsettling, thought provoking and, in its depiction of a somewhat less fanciful potential End of Days, occasionally quite terrifying. It’s a book you’ll want to tell your friends about.