The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is not my usual kind of book. I’m not at all into disaster movies or science fiction, though this book, despite having elements of both, doesn’t really fall plum into either of those categories. Nor do I read much YA, although yet again, I’m not sure whether the fact of an 11-year-old narrative perspective constitutes YA by itself (and in any case, technically this is written from some point in the future, looking back). But I was intrigued by the premise: with no warning, the earth begins to rotate more slowly and the days and nights grow longer and longer. The novel charts the gradual unfolding of this crisis.
Julia is an ordinary child growing up in an ordinary household in California. Like other citizens she hasn’t noticed the first incremental steps of what will become known as ‘the slowing’. It’s not until a television announcement is made that she and her parents have to face a freshly uncertain world.
Later, I would come to think of those first days as the time when we learned as a species that we had worried over the wrong things: the hole in the ozone layer, the melting of the ice caps, West Nile and swine flu and killer bees. But I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different – unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.’
Inevitably panic sets in, but this is a global problem – it’s not like people can run to a safe place. After a few days of confusion and unpheaval, stringent attempts are made to return to something approaching normal. The schools open again, businesses and hospitals keep going but the experience of time has been altered irrevocably: now every day is shot through with an uneasy waiting, waiting to see when darkness will finally fall, when daylight will finally return. Steadily, the days are growing longer, and there is nothing anyone can do.
Some people attempt to continue living on ‘real time’, arguing that their bodies will adapt, and that nature will overcome. Meanwhile, as the usual 12-hours of daylight becomes sixteen, seventeen hours long, government steps in and declares a return to clock time. The 24-hour day is reinstated, no matter what the sun happens to be doing in the sky. A schism opens up between those who comply and those who insist on remaining in step with the skies; they are considered subversives and in the wake of persecution most leave to form colonies of their own. For the rest, trying to sleep in broad daylight or commute in darkness is odd enough, but other strange problems are arising. Birds fall from the skies and balls fail to follow their usual trajectory as gravity loosens its grip. Sport becomes difficult to play. As the slowing continues, the crops begin to fail unless they are given artificial light; the increased drain on power reserves is enormous and problematic. Eventually, the daylight will last so long and the magnetic force surrounding the earth will become so weakened that it is dangerous for people to be out in its burning heat, whilst the long nights bring artic conditions.
And people begin to fall sick with an unexplained syndrome – dizziness, nausea, fatigue. Julia’s mother comes down with it. This is the most immediate effect on Julia and her family, although it is not the first. Her mother is a worrier, easily made anxious, whilst her father, a doctor fully accustomed to shift work, refuses to be unsettled by what’s happening. Her parents grow ever more estranged in their differing attitudes. And for Julia, the global crisis is a kind of amplified version of the trials of adolescence. Her best friend, Hanna, leaves town soon after the slowing starts as her family want to be with a Mormon community. When she returns, weeks later, their friendship is over in ways Julia can’t understand. Julia is secretly obsessed with a boy from school, Seth Moreno, and it’s hard to tell whether her crush is a way of keeping things normal, or another casualty of a world braking on its axis.
Maybe it had begun to happen before the slowing, but it was only afterward that I realised it: My friendships were disintegrating. Things were coming apart. It was a rough crossing, the one from childhood to the next life. And as with any other harsh journey, not everything survived.’
This is a beautifully written novel, full of admirable sentences (‘At last, like a fever, the night broke.’) and the slow breakdown of life as we know it is creatively imagined. I was engaged with the narrative and wanted to read it to the end. But – and here’s where the buts begin – this is a problematic novel in all sorts of ways. Essentially the main issue is that we have a very intriguing situation but no story. Everything that happens in the book can be placed under the heading of: Things Get Worse. When we reach the end, it is as unsatisfactory as only an ending can be when the situation depicted is essentially one of steady entropy. To say it fizzles out is kind. And the events depicted are the product of a deeply pessimistic imagination; things get worse even when they don’t have to. Why does Hanna stop being Julia’s friend? Why do Julia’s parents fall apart? Why does Seth shun her? And where is the entrepreneurial spirit that always arises in humans in crisis situations? Part criminal, part creative, people are wired to take advantage of changing conditions as much as they are wired to fear them.
All this is beside the dodgy science. I am woefully uninformed in scientific matters; you could get anything past me. But readers with more knowledge seem united in decrying the situation that is the best part of this novel. It seems it would not happen this way: there would be a great deal more of a prologue, and earth would likely be sucked out of its orbit altogether. Which would considerably shorten the story, I guess.
So this is an interesting one. A good book in some ways, a bad book in others. A readable book and a plausible book, and simultaneously an impossible book and a disappointing story. I enjoyed the first half a great deal, and felt my admiration steadily drain away in the second half. But the writing was consistently good; I’ll definitely be curious to see what the author does next.