The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker
I picked up The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker,because of its unusual premise: the Earth’s rotation begins to slow down. Something in the short description I read about the book made me think that, despite the ‘global destruction’ scenario, this was not another dystopian Hunger Games novel, and not pure science fiction, either. It was, it seemed, a character driven story about an 11 year old girl. I was intrigued. How does an author use such an unlikely story line as the slowing of the rotation of the earth effectively in literary fiction without it becoming genre fiction? In what literary world would that whopper of a plot element not be the main point of the book?
In the world Karen Thompson Walker creates for Julia, the young protagonist in The Age of Miracles.
This is a beautiful book, but it’s not about beautiful things. This is a book about a natural disaster more significant as any seen on the national news, and yet it has a cover featuring twinkling stars on a benign blue background. And while it is a book about one possible ending (perhaps) to the world as we know it, what it’s really about is the ending of a different kind of world: a world of innocence. I can’t say for sure that Walker is using the slowing of the Earth’s rotation as a metaphor for growing up, but she earns my respect for juxtaposing something so damn big against the small, quiet tide of one painfully shy girl’s adolescence. The narrator gives equal weight to the longer length of a day and to having her prepubescent breasts exposed to a group of onlookers at the school bus stop. The new reality of entire days passing in darkness, and nights full of sunlight, is no more devastating than her discovery of her father’s apparent infidelity and the stress that creates in her life. It is a common literary practice to have the physical environment mirror the internal struggles of the characters (there’s always a dark and stormy night in a horror novel, right?) but the scale of Thompson’s environmental disaster gives such a surprising weight to the personal events in Julia’s life that the reader is forced to consider each small failing, each tiny heartbreak, each broken promise, on the same scale as that of a planetary disaster resulting in the potential extinction of our species.
Does she succeed? Is it worth it, this huge cosmic metaphor? I suppose it depends on who you are. If you are looking for a sexy, high drama, plot based thriller, than, no. This book would totally disappoint you. But if you enjoy books that deliver far more than they promise, books that are like small splinters of wood, ones that are deceptively benign until they get wedged under your cuticles and become painfully uncomfortable, than, yes, the grand metaphor (and the book as a whole) might work for you. It worked in spades for me. Death is death, and change is change. Whatever the scale and no matter who you are, life is full of sorrow. People adapt and life goes on. Walker looks at adolescence, and change, through a powerful new lens in The Age of Miracles. Don’t underestimate the power of a good metaphor and excellent writing to deliver a message that will get under your skin and stay there.