Book Review: Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Look. I don't live in a vacuum. I know this is one of the most talked about books of the summer. Big displays in bookstores, frequent author appearances on my favorite public radio station cultural programming, reviews in my newspapers and journals of choice (that I didn't read - by the way - so I wouldn't spoil my experience). So hard I did try to consider this book on its own merits, without expectations. But I'm human. Given the hype, I'm gonna hope for a miracle.

Okay, maybe not a miracle. But something really extraordinary. Which this isn't. I'm so confused.

In case you DO live in a vacuum, The Age of Miracles, the debut of novelist Karen Thompson Walker, is set in suburban California right about now. The earth's rotation is inexplicably slowing, leading to hours of night, hours of bright day, throwing the universe out of temporal, circadian, climactic whack. Gravity is affected, birds cannot fly, fish cannot swim. Crops fail, cults flourish, communities collapse. But soccer practice goes on.

It's a brilliant premise and Thompson Walker does a superb job of presenting this disaster and its unfolding consequences without miring the book in scientific explanations. I don't need to know why the slowing is happening; I'm ready to believe that our destruction of the planet can extend into our solar system. I am, therefore, disappointed by the author's heavy-handed foreshadowing. Frequent sentences with "It was the last time we..." or "We never...again..." steal the immediacy of the disaster.

Now that I've read several published reviews, let me dispel the widespread notion this story is told from the point of view of an 11-year old narrator, Julia. No. It isn't. It's told by 20-something Julia, looking back on the first year when the earth's rotation decelerated. Which changes everything this book is suggested to be - a coming of age story, a unique perspective of a girl as the world begins a slow collapse around her. That misperception is not the author's fault. But by choosing to tell the story from many years' distance, Karen Thompson Walker does present the reader with an unreliable narrator. Are we expected to trust Julia's memory of how her limited community - her neighborhood, her school, her family - reacted to "the slowing"? Even more to the point, because this is a book far more concerned with human nature than its sci-fi premise would suggest, are we to trust older Julia's recounting of the relationships as she observed and participated in them? Had the author truly wanted us to live in Julia's moment, she would have let the little girl speak in her own voice, not via the sophisticated redaction presented by her adult self.

I can't quite figure out if this is meant to be Young Adult fiction. If 11-year old Julia were truly the narrator, I'd say a definitive "Yes". But Julia's voice and her perceptions don't ring true in so young a girl. Given her neighborhood, her home life - it doesn't compute that she was as worldly-wise as her 20-something self portrays her. Yet, the emotional dimensions of this novel are too simplistic for adult literary fiction. It's all so muddled.

There is some extraordinary writing here.

Chapter One, Page 1

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. We were distracted back then by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. 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.

But there were those who would later claim to have recognized the disaster before the rest of us did. These were the night workers, the graveyard shifters, the stockers of shelves, and the loaders of ships, the drivers of big- rig trucks, or else they were the bearers of different burdens: the sleepless and the troubled and the sick.

These people were accustomed to waiting out the night. Through bloodshot eyes, a few did detect a certain persistence of darkness on the mornings leading up to the news, but each mistook it for the private misperception of a lonely, rattled mind.

I mean, Holy Cow. But this promises a tension and a sense of dread that aren't sustained. There are too many parts that drone and drag, as minutes are added to the Earth's rotation and Julia's mother adds jars of peanut butter to the stash under the bed.

In the end, this is good entertainment. I can give it a pretty solid (how's that for waffling?) three stars, because I am taken by the dystopian rendering of a world grinding to a halt. But the characters feel dim and insubstantial to me, like memories of a summer fling.

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