Friday, November 2, 2012

The Age of Miracles

Sometimes the time at which a book makes its way to the top of my to-read pile is downright eerie. This week, for instance, during the "Frankenstorm" that was Hurricane Sandy – possibly the worst natural disaster to hit New York City in the last century – I was reading The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. I would have thoroughly enjoyed this book even if I hadn't been reading it with the backdrop of a hurricane and days and days and days of rain, but all of that gave the novel a kind of spooky feeling, as if I'd stumbled upon some kind of weird prophecy. I know it isn't really possible for a book to decide when it should be read, but I've had The Age of Miracles on my shelf for four months, so picking it up now makes me wonder a little.

Anyway. Thompson Walker's novel is set in more or less present-day California, where everything is just as it is now, except that the Earth's rotation has started to slow down. At the beginning of this slowing, days get longer by a half hour or forty-five minutes, and people start stocking up on canned food. When the news is broadcast for the first time, the narrator, 11-year-old Julia, runs outside to see if she anything looks different, but everything is just the same. Soon, though, the slowing becomes more noticeable. The days and nights start to stretch out until the clocks cease to make sense – 3 a.m. falls in the middle of the afternoon, noon in the morning, etc. The start time for school is announced each morning – that is, after sunrise – and a lot of kids stop showing up. Then birds start getting sick and falling dead from the sky.

The slowing, it seems, has started to affect the magnetic field, causing what is dubbed gravity sickness in people, and wreaking havoc with birds' navigation. In barely a month, there are almost no birds left in Julia's California town, and she's heard that it's like that elsewhere too. The longer days and change in gravity have also served to play with the tides, which are larger and fuller than ever. People have been forced to abandon their seaside mansions, which are now covered at every high tide.

Eventually, the days and nights grow to such exaggerated lengths that the government announces the country is going back to clock time. The rise and set of the sun will no longer have any bearing on what is day or night, they decide, on starting on a Sunday, the U.S. and countries all over the world, return to the clock. Floodlights are set up around Julia's school to when the students have to attend during dark days; quilts are hung over windows to block the sun on white nights, and soon the light and dark periods stretch to 48 hours each. Crops start to die, trees whither, and people begin to invest in green houses; Julia's mother's emergency stash of non-perishables spreads to the guest room.

As if all this weren't enough to try and deal with, Julia is in Grade 6, at that liminal age between being a kid and being something more grownup. Julia's best friend Hannah is sleeping over when the slowing is announced, and after she goes home that morning Julia doesn't see her again for months. Hannah's family is Mormon, so they return to Utah to prepare for the end of the world. When the rapture doesn't happen, Hannah comes back, but she has a new best friend now, leaving Julia more alone that ever. Julia's mother is sick – with gravity sickness – and as the slowing continues, Julia feels increasingly isolated. Until one day, when Seth Moreno, a boy from two streets over who Julia has been watching, invites her to the beach after school. A pod of whales has beach itself, and he wants to go and see and try to help. Although it doesn't happen right away, Julia and Seth become friends, best friends, half in love the way you only can be at 12 years old.

Thompson Walker so completely captures what it's like to be in Grade 6 – strangely aware of yourself and insecure and unsure and defiant – that even if you haven't thought about that time in years, Julia pulls you back there. It's this hyper-realistic experience that grounds the novel, making the other half of it seem not only plausible but frighteningly possible. This gives the title a dual significance, as The Age of Miracles is both the time of the Earth's slowing and puberty, when your body and emotions and everything seems to change both incrementally and overnight. It almost makes you wonder if the slowing is just a metaphor for what Julia is going through personally, but, of course, that it isn't makes the novel all the more fascinating. It is, I think, one of the most inventive novels I've read this year, and I can't imagine that you wouldn't enjoy it as much as I did.

The Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker
First published in 2012 (cover image shown from Doubleday Canada edition)

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