A brief glimpse at these pages would reveal that I am a devourer of Young Adult dystopia. Not surprising, then, that I have been counting off the days until the publication of Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles. A proud member of the exclusive Waterstone 11 club (along with the fabulous The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey), this novel caught my interest immediately. However, it turns out that The Age of Miracles is not a YA novel, nor has it been marketed as one. On reading its subject, I’d just assumed that it was one.
The Age of Miracles tells the story of Julia, an 11-year-old girl in southern California, who is a witness to the slowing of the earth’s spin. Minutes are added to each day but not predictably. The TV news charts the day’s additional minutes in the same way that it would once have published the weather. As the days extend, as the light grows more intense and the nights become darker, people no longer know how to structure their day. The time has come when “Light would be unhooked from day, darkness unchained from night”. Clock-timers stand opposed to real-timers, gravity changes, power becomes unreliable, birds cannot fly, animals and plants fade from life. In all likelihood, the future for mankind looks short.
There is only one thing that could possibly distract Julia from this potential end of the world reality and that is the same thing that has preoccupied girls and boys since the origin of man – puberty. With day and night fighting for dominance, Julia instead worries about training bras, her aloneness as her relationships with her friends pulse from hot to cold, the fragility of families, including her own parents, and, above all, boys. Julia is discovering those first blushes of hopeless love for a boy, Seth, who may, after all, have some interest in her too. It’s brittle, delicate and it gives little pleasure, just an awful lot of self-scrutiny and pain. Seth is a troubled boy. Seth and Julia both have their own problems to deal with which almost eclipse the strange behaviour of the planet and they manage to distract us as well. That is the power of Karen Thompson Walker’s empathy for her young characters.
Both stories hold our interest – Julia’s puberty and the catastrophe facing the earth. My one issue with The Age of Miracles is with its voice. The story throughout is told from Julia’s point of view and, although we are reminded occasionally (and obtrusively) that the events are in the past, the narrative is very much presented as the voice of an 11-year-old girl, with detailed recollections of every day and every feeling. While this adds to the pace and flow of the novel, it does highlight the fact that this is no ordinary 11-year-old child. Julia is knowing and wise.
This self-awareness is for me a slight stumbling block. The novel doesn’t place me in the head of an 11 year old but yet it also fails to give me an adult perspective on the calamitous events happening around Julia and further afield. We are given glimpses, through news reports and a brief journey into the desert, but generally everything is presented through the filter of a child who doesn’t seem like a child. The brief benefits of hindsight that we are given aren’t fully developed and add little. I really wanted to know what was going on elsewhere.
Nevertheless, despite this quibble, The Age of Miracles is a wonderful book that I lapped up in under a day. It was a pleasure to read and at times quite painful for the raw memories that it evoked of growing up. Karen Thompson Walker writes very well. There are beautifully described moments and some dark glimpses of everyone’s inner fears as control is lost over night and day and the clock.
I really liked Julia. I felt for her as she has to deal with everything from unknowable parents and fickle girlfriends to inscrutable boys and dying birds. To add the chaos of the earth’s slowing to her growing pains seems especially cruel although, to be fair, the adults seem to cope far less well.
If you like this, you may also like Life as We knew It by Susan Pfeffer.