Author: Karen Thompson Walker

2012, Random House

Filed Under: Literary, Sci-Fi, Young Adult

There’s been a good deal of hype surrounding this book, due in large part to the millions Walker has reportedly made in advances. Predictably enough, there’s also been a backlash to go with all that buzz.

I’m not as down on The Age of Miracles as some reviewers (the Guardian called it “a sorry and pallid failure”), but the criticisms are justified. At times this is a very good book, and on a sentence level the writing is often beautiful. But for all The Age of Miracles brings in terms of originality, style, and even a little bit of heart, it fails to find congruity between its various parts, and ultimately it’s fairly boring.

The huge amount of money that various publishers paid for Miracles may be doing it a disservice (though perhaps not from a sales perspective). I went into this novel expecting a thematically mature literary novel with a tinge of sci-fi. In actuality, this is a run-of-the-mill young adult coming-of-age novel (with a tinge of sci-fi). That’s not a bad thing per se, indeed a well-written YA novel over a creative sci-fi backdrop is a brimming cup of my tea. But the target audience here is likely to prefer Madeleine L’Engle to Marilynne Robinson–in other words, the book carries a much more juvenile tone than you might expect. That’s not a criticism of the writing, but I expect there will be quite a few adult readers let down when they encounter this.

The thing about a bildungsroman is that the transition to adulthood is inherently the apex of the narrative structure. In a novel about the world coming to an end, this puts the plot and the setting at odds. A setting is best utilized as a backdrop (and here it’s a finely rendered one) to support some of the thematic elements in a work while at the same time lending a sense of identity to the book. But when this setting vies for the reader’s attention at the expense of the actual story at hand, this creates a notable and, to an extent, disruptive disparity that weakens the cohesion of work as a whole. E.g.: if Huck Finn decided to free Jim in the middle of the nuclear Holocaust, would it matter as much?

Julia was eleven when the rotation of the earth began to slow. At first it was minor, only a few minutes extended each day. Scientists were unsure of the cause. As the book progresses, “the slowing,” as it’s called, has extended the duration of a single rotation of the earth to nearly sixty hours. This, of course, brings about global calamity. Governments, in an attempt to keep their economies functioning, have mandated that people continue to live on a twenty-four hour cycle, dissociating light and darkness from day and night.

Not all citizens are on board with that dissociation, and societal tensions ramp up as communes of “real-timers” begin to form around the world. Some people begin falling ill from the change in Earth’s gravity; birds start dropping dead mid-flight; crops can no longer survive outside of greenhouses; the overencumbered power grid begins to falter; the Earth’s magnetic field weakens, intensifying radiation from the sun. This book takes place as the world as we know it crumbles into apocalypse.

These are unavoidable realities and points of real danger in Julia’s world. Despite these, it’s Julia’s transition to adulthood that Walker continually steers the reader’s attention back to. Amidst the chaos of the end of days, that pales in comparison. Julia’s generation will be the last to remember the world as it was, and might be the last generation period, but that is given hardly any thought, if not outright ignored. Instead she goes through typical kid stuff, learning the same lessons we all learned in adolescence–about love, trust, betrayal, accountability, morality, mortality, etc.

Julia loses her best friend, a Mormon, when her family flees to Utah in the immediate aftermath. When the girl returns, months later, she has moved on to new friends, leaving Julia alone. Julia’s mother, meanwhile, has become paranoid, hoarding survival rations (something that ultimately proves not entirely unfounded) and compulsively watching news programs, while her father drifts into the arms of another woman. Julia must learn to see, think about, and engage her parents as individuals with lives extending beyond their parental roles.

There was a time when those two people–that man hunched at the table and that woman shouting is bathrobe–were young. The proof was in the pictures that hung on the living room walls, a pretty girl and a bookish guy, a studio apartment in a crumbling Hollywood building overlooking a courtyard and a kidney-shaped pool. This was the mythical period before I was born, when mother was not a mother[…]

The writing is at the very least competent, but there is the occasional dip into pretentiousness: “On the day of each girl’s birth” instead of birthday, for instance. But more often, it’s quite nice:

I pretended to read. The clock ticked. Seth did not appear.
On dark days like that one, the library windows looked lit up like an aquarium, the inhabitants on display for all the other kids to see: here the most exotic fish, the lonely, the unloved, the weird.

Seth, you might have guessed, is the love interest, the object of Julia’s adolescent infatuation. Like any other YA novel of this ilk, this is of course a primary focus. Seth’s story arc is a little too similar to My Girl for my taste, doing little more than to serve the emotional maturation essential to Julia’s character.

So the novel leaves us with the world on the brink, and Julia, as fully adult as a crumbling society is going to make her, is left to make a life for herself despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. You could argue it’s a story about finding humanity even in the most hopeless of situations. You could. It’s a poignant place to leave the character and end the book. It’s also probably the starting point for a more interesting story.

Similar Reads: The Road (McCarthy), Ender’s Game (Card), The Oracle of Stamboul (Lukas), Room (Donoghue)