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The Age of Miracles: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 26, 2012
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, June 2012: In The Age of Miracles, the world is ending not with a bang so much as a long, drawn-out whimper. And it turns out the whimper can be a lot harder to cope with. The Earth's rotation slows, gradually stretching out days and nights and subtly affecting the planet's gravity. The looming apocalypse parallels the adolescent struggles of 10-year-old Julia, as her comfortable suburban life succumbs to a sort of domestic deterioration. Julia confronts her parents' faltering marriage, illness, the death of a loved one, her first love, and her first heartbreak. Karen Thompson Walker is a gifted storyteller. Her language is precise and poetic, but style never overpowers the realism she imbues to her characters and the slowing Earth they inhabit. Most impressively, Thompson Walker has written a coming-of-age tale that asks whether it's worth coming of age at all in a world that might end at any minute. Like the best stories about the end of the world, The Age of Miracles is about the existence of hope and whether it can prevail in the face of uncertainty. --Kevin Nguyen
Q&A with Karen Thompson Walker
Q. In The Age of Miracles, you envision a natural phenomenon that threatens the entire world. This "slowing" is global, yet you decided to focus on Julia. Why?
A. Julia's voice--the voice of a young woman looking back on her adolescence--came into my head as soon as I had the idea of the slowing. It was the only way I could imagine writing the book. Adolescence is an extraordinary time of life, a period when the simple passage of time results in dramatic consequences, when we grow and change at seemingly impossible speeds. It seemed natural to tell the story of the slowing, which is partly about time, in the context of middle school. It was also a way of concentrating on the fine-grain details of everyday life, which was very important to me. I was interested in exploring the ways in which life carries on, even in the face of profound uncertainty.
Julia felt like a natural narrator for this story because she listens more than she speaks, and she watches more than she acts. I think the fact that Julia is an only child is part of why she's so observant. Julia also places a very high value on her friendships, and is unusually attuned to the subtle tensions in her parents' marriage, which increase as the slowing unfolds.
Q. The details of how such a slowing would affect us and our environment are rendered quite realistically. How did you get these details right?
A. No one knows exactly what would happen if the rotation of the earth slowed the way it does in my book, so I had some freedom. I did some research at the outset, but I came across many of my favorite details accidentally. Whenever I read an article that contained a potentially relevant detail--anything from sleep disorders, to new technologies for growing plants in greenhouses, to the various ways people and governments reacted to the financial crisis--I would knit it into the fabric of the book. After I finished the book, I had an astrophysicist read it for scientific accuracy, which was an extremely nerve-racking experience. I was relieved by how many of my details he found plausible, but made some adjustments based on what he said.
In general, I wanted my book to seem as real as possible. I recently read a Guardian interview with the Portuguese writer José Saramago, who said that his books were about "the possibility of the impossible." He explained that even if the premise of a book seemed "impossible," it was important to him that the development of that premise be logical and rational. That's exactly the way I wanted The Age of Miracles to function.
Q. Like Julia, you grew up in Southern California, where natural disasters are always looming. Do you think this influenced you in writing of The Age of Miracles?
A. I grew up in San Diego on a cul-de-sac of tract houses much like the one where The Age of Miracles takes place. In most ways, California was a very pleasant place to grow up. But it could also be a little scary. I remember how the sky would sometimes fill with smoke during fire season, how the smoke hung in the air for days at a time, burning our throats and turning everything slightly orange. I remember the way the windows rattled at the start of every earthquake, and the way the chandelier above our dinner table would swing back and forth until the shaking stopped. I sometimes couldn't sleep at night, worried that an earthquake or a fire would strike at night. But when I think of those years now, I realize that my novel grew partly out of my lifelong habit of imagining disaster.
If I've given the impression that I was constantly afraid as a child, that's not right. In fact, one of the things I remember most vividly about living in California is the way we mostly ignored the possibility of danger. We always knew that the "big one"--the giant earthquake that scientists believe will one day hit the region--could strike at any time, but mostly we lived as if it never would. Life often felt idyllic: We played soccer, we went swimming, we went walking on the beach. A little bit of denial is part of what it means to live in California. Then again, maybe that's also just part of being alive. I really wanted to capture that feeling in The Age of Miracles.
*Starred Review* This is the way the world ends: by gradually slowing down. When scientists reveal that the earth’s rotation has been extended by 56 minutes, there is a minor panic. Twelve-year-old Julia doesn’t really recognize what’s happening—sure, her drama-queen mother starts hoarding food, and she loses some school friends when their families leave town, but at first, life seems to go on as usual. Until the slowdown continues, and it isn’t only by an hour anymore—the days keep stretching, with no apparent return to normal. The world’s governments agree to keep “clock time,” forcing everyone to stick to a 24-hour schedule, despite sunrise and sunset. Rebels known as “real-timers” are ostracized and harassed. Some people become afflicted with “slowing syndrome,” leaving them disoriented and prone to passing out, including Julia’s mother, who causes a fatal accident due to a fainting spell. Studies document an increase in impulsive behavior in others, and those seemingly unaffected by the slowing find themselves making bad decisions. All of this has an impact on Julia, who sees her parents, teachers, and neighbors crumbling around her. All at once a coming-of-age story and a tale of a frightening possible future, this is a gem that will charm readers as well as give them the shivers. --Rebecca Vnuk
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This wasn't a post-apocalyptic novel. It was more of a mid-apocalypse novel, which made it that much more fascinating. As a reader, you are there for the first "oh, I'm sure this will all blow over and we'll have a good laugh at those who overreacted" reactions. Then you get to watch everything change, one seemingly small impact at a time.
Even better, it was told from the perspective of a thoughtful but realistically self-centered 12-year old girl. She is unpopular and overlooked, but she shows this without wallowing in melodramatic self-pity. (Well, okay, maybe there is the occasional "Maybe loneliness was imprinted in my genes, lying dormant for years but now coming into full bloom." but I will allow it.)
The earth slows down. Just a little, a few minutes, at first. Then hours. Until "a day" runs on for days. Until birds fall out of the sky, and whales beach themselves, and the Northern Lights show up around the equator. "Only later did we discover that the solar storm had wiped out the cell phone satellites. A million desperate calls flew into space that day but landed nowhere."
This is YA, but like all good YA, you don't know it. "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."
I loved it. One of those books so realistic that real life starts to feel surreal. A book to make you appreciate the sun rising and setting as it should.
With that premise and the bizarre effects caused by such a thing--all plant life dying, super radiation from the sun, a shifting magnetic shield--the main story is about 11-year-old Julia who is at that most awkward and painful of ages: sixth grade. This is the story of Julia making friends, losing friends and falling in love as only a middle schooler can.
It is the age of miracles--when the boy does notice you, when you figure out who you really are and you learn what friendship really means. But this is no ordinary coming of age for Julia, since she is living in a time when life as we know it on Earth is irreparably changing in ways no one ever anticipated.
The writing is excellent, but even more important is that Walker made me suspend all rational, scientific thought to believe the impossible could happen--at least in this terrific story.
I almost gave up on this book multiple times. I wish I had. What kept me going was a hope of some scientific exploration of the phenomena described in the novel. Spoiler alert: there is none. There is almost no scientific thought present in this novel.
The novel ends when it feels like the author has gotten sick of writing it, and she comes out with the explanation that the characters never found out why the precipitating event of the novel happened. It's been a long time since a book made me angry -- this one did. Don't waste your time on it.