The sky is falling! No, wait. It’s not falling, the sun just isn’t moving. Jill’s Review of Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles

Indiespensible’s June shipment.  I definitely would have purchased this book if it hadn’t been sent to me, maybe even in hardcover, certainly could have been a paperback pre-order.  On my goodreads.com it’s filed under “dystopia.”  Other people call it “speculative fiction.” It’s definitely a multiple-genre read.

This book was just what I needed!  It is both well-written and fast-paced, with a hint of science fiction to transform what is basically a coming of age story into something more.  The book begins with a revelation—scientists have discovered that the earth’s rotation is slowing and that days and nights will gradually grow longer and longer.  There is never any explanation offered for this, so perhaps the scientists don’t know or perhaps the author did not want to get into possible causes for “the slowing,” feeling that it’s outside the scope of the book or outside her knowledge base to come up with possible causes for a bizarre phenomenon that are believable.  I totally respect that—better to not get into complicated scientific explanations if it will detract from the overall point of the book.  And the point of the book is not to be science fiction; it’s about a girl growing up while the world is dying.

It amazes me how life just seemed to go on essentially as normal for the characters in this book.  When major catastrophes occur I assume society would collapse, like it always seems to do in the movies.  But then that’s not life, that’s Hollywood.  What else are normal people going to do when faced with adversity but “get busy living or get busy dying”? (That’s from The Shawshank Redemption, speaking of Hollywood.)  Obviously there are changes, adjustments to be made, but work and school still happen for the majority of people.  There’s no rioting, no mutants developing because of increased radiation exposure (and here I go, trying to make this a sci-fi book again).  There are several suicide pacts and multiple “real time” colonies that form out in the desert, but generally this book focuses on the people who try to conform and live their lives, for the most part, as they always have.

The narrator is Julia, who is eleven when the slowing begins.  An eleven-year-old girl just starting sixth grade has got her own array of life altering problems to deal with, no matter how long it takes the sun to rotate on its axis.  “This was middle school, the age of miracles, the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove.  Our first flaws were emerging, but they were being corrected.  Blurry vision could be fixed invisibly with the magic of the contact lens.  Crooked teeth were pulled straight with braces.  Spotty skin could be chemically cleared.  Some girls were turning beautiful.  A few boys were growing tall.  I knew I still looked like a child (p. 43).” Julia’s best friend Hanna abandons her for a more popular crowd, and Julia begins to isolate herself.  As the days grow longer Julia grows more alone.  Her parents marriage begins to deteriorate, her mom develops gravity sickness, a disease that may be more in her head than anywhere else.  The diseases that develop in people because of the slowing are another place where I feel like there could have been more detail, if only because of my own interest in medicine.

The more I think about this book as I write this review, the more it strikes me that it was written for women like me.  I was Julia.  Her sixth grade experience mirrors my own.  Obviously the world didn’t begin to end while I was a sixth grade girl, but I was humiliated like she was, I was abandoned like she was.  I was alone.  I could go into more detail about the misery that was sixth grade, but honestly the more I think about it, the less I want to revisit those days.  I hope that Julia emerged whole and entire on the other side of puberty, and found friends who accepted her for the person she was becoming, as I did.  I will be grateful for those friends I found forever.  My husband finds it amazing that I keep in such good contact with friends I’ve had since I was thirteen or younger.  All I need to do to remember why is to think of how they have never abandoned me in the schoolyard.  They have my friendship and loyalty forever, no matter where our lives take us.

The kids all seem to blithely accept this major change and just go about life as usual with their middle school dramas and all that, Julia included.  Whales and other sea mammals begin beaching themselves for reasons unknown.  Seth Moreno, her long time crush, asks her to go to the beach to see the whales.  “Those were only the first of the whales.  Hundreds more would soon wash ashore on the California coastline.  Then thousands.  Tens of thousands.  More.  Eventually, people stopped trying to save them (p. 194).”  After the afternoon they spend trying to give water to the whales, and Seth mentions the decaying magnetic field as a possible cause (his dad is some kind of scientist), she thinks, “But that day I could hardly hear him.  My mind was elsewhere.  I was a little bit in love.  I’d spent an entire afternoon with Seth Moreno (p. 195).”  And you know what?  At that moment, I didn’t care about the dead and dying whales either.  All I thought was, “At last Julia isn’t alone.  At last she has a friend.”

The adults in The Age of Miracles do take the slowing more seriously than the kids do, though it seems they do a pretty good job of shielding their children from that.  Obviously some of it gets through: Julia knows her parents are not getting along.  She discovers her father is having an affair with her former piano teacher, a hippie-type who decides to stick with “real time” over “clock time” when the government makes the decision to go back to a twenty-four hour clock despite what the earth is doing.  The families on the block that don’t go back to “clock time” are ostracized from the community and eventually forced to leave.  People build hidden storage lockers in their houses and erect greenhouses in their back yards.  Julia’s grandfather reclaims the bomb shelter in his back yard from the sixties to protect the family from the radiation. It would be interesting to have this book written also from an adult’s perspective, to see what was going through their heads—I suppose that is not the point of this novel, but I’d still like to know.

This book was beautifully written, and powerful and sad.  It’s hard for me to revisit my life as it was at Julia’s age, and I often wonder if that is the case for everyone, even the girls who were on the other side.  I don’t suppose I’ll ever know, and that’s okay.  I do know that Karen Thompson Walker captured what it feels like to be eleven years old in extraordinary times and I’ll definitely read her again.  This was her first novel and I’m sure she’ll only get better from here.

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