Thursday, January 10, 2013

"The Age of Miracles" by Karen Thompson Walker

At the heart of The Age of Miracles is a coming-of-age story so often told that it frequently veers into the cliche: Julia is an 11-year-old girl, shy and naive, without friends; she secretly crushes on neighbor boy Seth; she doesn't know how to respond to the tensions in her parents' marriage; she often feels lost and confused, wanting more but unwilling or unable to make it happen. As a story, it just doesn't interest me. But, what saves Julia's story and Age of Miracles is the backdrop against which Julia's maturation occurs: an apocalyptic future in which the earth's rotation begins to slow and the days lengthen.

So though I truthfully didn't care much about Julia's long-simmering crush or her terror at not having a bra, I thought the exploration of the slow cataclysm that might result (I don't know how good Walker's research was, but I'm hoping it wasn't all made up) by something straightforward like the slow of the earth's spin was fascinating. Walker explores the scientific concerns, like the inability to grow crops during prolonged periods of darkness (or sunlight), but she also explores the psychological and social impact such a change might cause. Early in the crisis, most governments of the world choose to remain on "clock time," observing 24-hour days regardless of the light or dark outside. Early on, this means people experience noon-level brightness at 2am or 2am-darkness in the middle of the afternoon; later on, it means days of sunlight or darkness in a row. But certain groups of people choose to remain in "real time," observing the traditional cycle of wakeful activity during light and sleep during dark--regardless of the length of the day. Inevitably there's backlash against the real-timers, as fear and paranoia continue to fester. I also appreciated the way in which Walker shows that life will continue--how can it not?--even in a period of disaster. People adjust and will try to retain normalcy at all costs.

While I found the apocalypse and its effects fascinating, as I said, the characters were less so. Julia is personality-less, and though she does eventually develop a relationship with Seth, it's through his action, not her own, and it's difficult to see how she grows or changes in the novel. As one might expect, her mother withers and frets; her father becomes stoic and distant; there was little new explored in their relationship or in their relationships with Julia.

The entire novel has a somber and melancholy tone, its wistfulness only increased by the narration of a Julia-in-the-future, who's able to insert ominous comments like "It was the last grape I would ever taste" every few pages. The mood was so enveloping that when I would stop reading, I'd sit, feeling reflective and gloomy at the state of our world before remembering that my world is not suffering an environmental apocalypse (at least not of this nature). I suppose credit goes to Walker for her success at creating that atmosphere, though the overwhelming dreariness might turn off some readers.

The Age of Miracles is eerily similar to Life As We Knew It, a YA novel about a teenage girl living through a realistic apocalypse much like this one (in hers, the moon movers closer to earth). Although there are many plot similarities, and though I had issues with the characterization of Julia, Walker's novel is still a much better book, far more interesting and thought-provoking that the trite and fake Life As We Knew It. For its take on an apocalypse alone, I'd recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Tia! I read this book recently and agree with your assessment! I wished there was more science, for one. Even though the book was definitely "gloomy," I nevertheless feel like if the earth really underwent those changes, it would be a lot less smooth than the book described. Seems like people would be dying by the millions--particularly in less developed countries. For example, there comes a point where they can't grow crops because there's both too much sun and too much darkness, so they somehow start growing crops under shades and with electric lights? Sure, they could grow a little food that way, but enough to feed even half of the hungry world? Anyway, have to go to bed, but looking forward to other reviews!