Life, But Not As We Know It

The Ageof MThe 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.


16 thoughts on “Life, But Not As We Know It

  1. How confusing! Although my background is science, I generally find it easy to disconnect and forget the lack of hard science unless it is so obviously wrong. This has been on my shelf for ages – during the first half of your review I was thinking I’ll enjoy this – now I’m not quite so sure…

    • I would love to know what you think of this! I thoroughly enjoyed the first half, and although the second didn’t feel as good to me, I still wanted to finish the book. I’d be very intrigued to hear how the science appeared to you.

  2. I have just finished this, and will write a review soon. The science is a bit dodgy, but you need to put it to one side, as the story is an interesting investigation into how society would cope with a slow moving catastrophe. Most stories are about “quick hits” such as earthquakes, massive nuclear attacks etc. I liked the slower pace of this. Do you know if the author has anything else due to be published?

    • As far as I know, no, but she’s American and the book will come out there first I guess. I absolutely see what you are saying, but I wondered why the author couldn’t find a slowly unfolding catastrophe that was more scientifically plausible. Because I agree that was the most intriguing part of it – the idea that people had all this time to realise – and yet not quite manage to realise – what was happening to them.

  3. I read this when it first came out a could of years ago and while I agree with Helen that you have to put the dodgy science to one side I also agree with you that what begins as a really interesting premise fizzles out badly at the end to the point where I was left asking ‘so what’. The author has had a really good idea but doesn’t seem to have known how to turn it into a story. I will look at whatever she writes next (and at the moment there is nothing on the way) but if that isn’t better executed I shall probably pass on a third.

    • This book sounds really disappointing – and odd to have a book without a story these days. Constructing a plot seems to be the most basic part of “How to write” books, although granted,I think the most difficult.

    • Oh I’m glad to know you had the same experience with it too. I thought the ending was very disappointing. And might it have been possible for the author to imagine a catastrophe that unfolded slowly and yet remained plausible? (I say this as someone who generally imagines several catastrophes a day, so maybe I just have an unfair advantage here!).

      Denise, there seem to be a lot of books that arrive without a decent plot these days. And I love a really good plot – that’s the whole cleverness of narrative to my mind.

  4. I read and reviewed this as well when it came out. I loved it. The science is dodgy but it’s not about that, I think. For me it was a swan song in the form of a coming of age novel, very melancholic and nostalgic.

    • And you didn’t mind the ending, when she suddenly skips a decade and not much seems to have happened, except things are still worse? I just found that so disappointing. I liked the writing and the first half had me engrossed, but when it became apparent that nothing of real note was going to happen, no meaning extracted, then I began to lose interest. It seems a shame to have a book that is so firmly based in science and yet for the reader to have to discount a scientific understanding of it.

      • It isn’t a YA novel because it’s a much older Julia, looking back, who tells this story. In a YA novel were experience what happens at the precise moment and the language would have to be adjusted.

  5. Yes, yes, yes! I read this one not long after it came out and had a similar experience to yours. I liked the first part of the book very much but then it all starts to come apart and left me feeling quite ambivalent about the whole thing. The science totally doesn’t work but that doesn’t matter really because it’s a novel and if all science in novels had to actually be plausible, well, there are lots of good books that wouldn’t be around.

    • Ha, yes I do like your reason for why we should maybe put the science to one side. Although I am not at all a science-oriented person, I rather wished the science part had been plausible because then I could have added to my dinner party conversation, or something. But I am so glad you felt the same as I did! That is always very satisfying.

      • Put the science to one side?! Good grief you will be arguing for unrealistic characters and chess playing, vodka drinking, black cats next 😉 Fiction eh?

      • Dark Puss, every time someone made the comment that science should be left to one side, I thought of you. So you may imagine how delighted I am to see you in action! 🙂

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