3:46 pm Jun. 26, 2012
The radio and TV news stations announce it on a Saturday in October: the earth’s rotation has, suddenly, slowed enough to cause an extra fifty-six minutes in the day. The experts can’t explain the phenomenon, known from then on as “the slowing.”
Julia, an eleven-year-old living in a Southern California suburb, hears the news while lying in her sleeping bag next to her best friend Hannah, on a sleepover. Recounting the episode from adulthood, Julia recalls her embarrassment over her mother stepping on Hannah’s pink polka-dotted sleeping bag in her running shoes, oblivious to anything but the TV newscasters.
This is the troubling new world of The Age of Miracles, out today from Random House, by debut author Karen Thompson Walker. Walker weaves the devastating narrative of “the slowing” as seen through Julia’s exhilarating and heartbreaking middle school experience. As the days and nights continue to grow longer, Julia faces bullies, longs for her crush, and gets dropped by Hannah for another best friend. It's the usual stuff adolescents face, but intensified through an unstoppable disaster. One of the most exciting moments of Julia’s life comes during an unexpected eclipse, soon after the announcement of the slowing. Everyone in the school panics and runs out of the building, and Julia finds herself fleeing hand-in-hand with her crush, Seth. She revels in his nearness, though for all she knows it may well be the end of the world.
Walker reportedly received a seven-figure deal after her book went on auction, an especially rare occurrence in these days of publishing volatility. Her editors are hoping for a literary hit a la The Time Traveler’s Wife or The Lovely Bones—a lot of pressure riding on a book with a sci-fi premise that some may shy away from, assuming it’s an action-adventure thriller. Still, like The Lovely Bones, this book takes a known genre—an end-of-the-world tale, as opposed to a ghost story—and turns it on its head by focusing so closely on its young protagonist. In the midst of an earthwide calamity, Julia’s own struggles and joys are necessarily exacerbated by the uncertain future. Still, it’s a tribute to Walker how quiet and thoughtful the book is, how it avoids melodrama and instead focuses on Julia’s childhood with sensitivity and sympathy.
Julia’s halting relationship with Seth provides a bright source of pleasure that cuts through the increasingly grave realities of life on earth. Apart from the logistical nightmares of the slowing that impact her and her family’s life (when to go to school or work, how long to stay there, when to sleep, how to fill the hours), Julia's mother becomes struck by “gravity sickness,” her father withdraws from the family, working longer and longer hours at the hospital, and her grizzled grandfather—the last holdout in a luxury housing development—gives way to paranoia and begins giving away his possessions. When certain neighbors, including Julia’s piano teacher, decide to reject the 24-hour government-mandated “clock time” and sleep and wake by the sun’s natural movement, Julia watches as they become ostracized and worse.
Walker reveals the consequences of the slowing in a methodical manner, and part of the slow-burning terror of the story stems from the realistic human reactions: panic, denial, paranoia, acceptance, and even boredom. As a perceptive child, and with the added perspective of adulthood, Julia is able to ruminate on these effects. When she finds out a disturbing secret about her normally predictable father, she wonders if he would have made different decisions if life had remained normal. But then she imagines the counterpoint in the voice of her mother, who she knows would say: “You can’t blame everything on the slowing. People are responsible for their own actions.”
Though Julia muses about how things might have been, she’s mostly able to adapt to her strange new life. Walker masterfully builds this eerie reality and imagines the unsettling experiences that her characters face. Early on, as birds are starting to die off without explanation while insects thrive, one of Julia’s soccer practices is cancelled when a million ladybugs take over the field. (“Even beauty, in abundance, is creepy.”) Similarly, Julia notices the oddness of people living on different clocks. When her hippie neighbors decide to live by the sun, she hears them outside gardening as she tries to sleep: “It was like a haunting, two dimensions of time occupying a single space.”
Walker has said that she based the book on actual occurrences: after the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, the rotation of the earth shortened by a fraction of a second; the 2011 earthquake in Japan had the same effect. After writing, Walker gave the manuscript to an astrophysicist to make sure everything was viable, and changed the parts that weren’t. Some of the most frightening parts of the book—the growing radiation and intensifying solar storms due to the withering magnetic field, along with an increase in gravity and a growing reliance on energy for greenhouses—are rooted in science.
Though Walker mixes these monumental shifts in the nature of reality into Julia’s life in a plausible way, her language often lags behind her ideas, tending toward the expository rather than the poetic. This straightforwardness may be purposeful—trying to summon Julia's voice as that of a child—but her adult perspective and mature ideas don’t preclude more detailed, visual text. Walker never seems quite sure how articulate to make Julia. She’s a kid, but narrated by an adult, and it often feels as thought the novel clings somewhat too heavily to the kid-ness of her voice.
When Julia's grown-up voice does intercede, it's to provide ominous ruminations from the future: “Had I known how much time would pass before we’d see each other again, I would’ve said a different good-bye” ; “This was one of the last real afternoons." Such turns come as unnecessarily dramatic distractions in an already sensational story.
While Julia's adult perspective does settle the question of whether the human race survives the slowing, it also, along with those doomsaying lines, suggests a host of questions about the future. Readers know the earth continues to slow down, but the effects of what would seem to be an unlivable environment are never told. How long do the days and nights get? How do humans cope? What does the world end up looking like? There's no coda to Julia’s story, and this winds up being a little frustrating.
The title refers not to the slowing, but to Julia’s time in middle school: “when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove.” In such extremely uncertain and trying times, Julia’s “growing up” and discovering the fallibility of those she loves most is harsher than most seventh-graders would expect. But it’s this same rawness that gives the novel its most affecting scenes, and imbues Julia's coming of age—a first kiss, a giddy decision to break the rules—with a fragile and elegiac beauty readers won’t soon forget.
Karen Thompson Walker will be reading at Greenlight Bookstore on June 28.