THE AGE OF MIRACLES
By Karen Thompson Walker
Random House, $26
When the Earth's rotation begins to slow, it wreaks havoc on humans, animals and plant life. As daylight and nighttime stretch beyond the 24-hour cycle, it becomes harder for crops to grow. A strange illness affects some people, causing dizziness and nausea. Birds die by the hundreds while whales wash up on beaches.
Karen Thompson Walker does a fantastic job of describing all of this. However, "The Age of Miracles" — Ms. Walker's first book -- really shines as the coming-of-age tale of Julia, an awkward child enduring her middle school years and her slowly deteriorating home life.
Despite the completely unforeseen natural disaster — Ms. Walker's characters call it simply "the slowing" — Julia's life isn't atypical for a middle school student. She falls in love, loses her best friend and worries about facing the wrath of the school bully.
Julia's attempts to fit in with her peer group, which Ms. Walker describes in lively terms, will surely resonate with most readers. Julia worries about things that are relatively trivial when compared with the slowing and the host of problems it causes.
For example, the girls at Julia's school normally give balloons to their friends on their birthday. However, after Julia's best and pretty much only friend, Hanna, begins to shun her, Julia realizes that her birthday might pass unrecognized. Julia's mother pushes for her to have a party, but Julia refuses. Julia's fears come true: She leaves school on her birthday with no balloon.
Julia and her family live in a relatively normal middle-class neighborhood in California. Her mother, Helen, a high school teacher, is needy and emotional and doesn't handle the unfolding disaster well. She succumbs to what the characters call gravity sickness or the slowing syndrome and suffers through severe bouts of dizziness and fainting that prevent her from functioning normally on some days.
Julia's father, Joel, a doctor who specializes in high-risk births, seems more of a rock at the beginning of the book, but he eventually becomes distant from his family. As Joel pulls away from his wife, Helen begins to lean on Julia for the emotional support that she craves. Julia notices these changes in her father. She begins to see him in a different light and starts to sympathize with her mother more.
Although the most emotionally wrenching parts of the book focus on Julia and her family, Ms. Walker takes great care to describe how society as a whole reacts to the slowing. At first, people panic, clearing out grocery stores as they horde canned food and bottled water. Some, like Julia's friend Hanna and her family, assume the end is near and travel to religiously significant locations.
Once people realize that the world isn't ending and that the slowing need not be more than an inconvenience, at least at first, their lives mostly return to normal — but just mostly.
For example, immediately after the slowing was discovered, society tried to follow the new day-and-night cycle instead of sticking to the 24-hour schedule. However, as the days and nights got unbearably long, the U.S. president made an announcement asking people to voluntary follow the old 24-hour clock. This will ease commerce and other functions of society, but it also means that people may be working when it is dark out and sleeping when it is completely daylight.
However, some people, whom Julia refers to as "real-timers," prefer to follow the schedule set by the sun. The real-timers face persecutions large and small. Some of Julia's neighbors aren't invited to a block party on account of their beliefs about how to count the days, and Julia's former piano teacher, Sylvia, believes that it was no accident when a tree fell on her house.
While this type of discrimination is not a major focus of the book, it is of a piece with larger themes about how we treat people who are different — and that's just one reason that "The Age of Miracles" is not for readers who hope to leave with a sense of hope. Much of the book is laced with a melancholy tone, shrouding both Julia and the world in general in a foreboding atmosphere.
Ms. Walker is not always successful as a literary stylist. She often uses similes and metaphors to provide the reader with visuals; at the beginning of the book, for example, Julia notes that "we did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath the skin." Although these descriptions work well at first, they eventually wear on the reader.
As the slowing takes its toll, Ms. Walker becomes heavy-handed with these techniques, and more than a few of her awkward descriptions should have ended up on the cutting-room floor. To take just one example: Ms. Walker describes a settlement of real-timers as being a place where the "pace of life really was slower, the time only inching along, a gradually advancing tide." Descriptions like these seem like overkill at times and may begin to grate on the reader.
"The Age of Miracles" is also unlikely to fully satisfy science-fiction buffs. Some in the book speculate that how humans have treated the Earth and its atmosphere may be the cause of the slowing. But the reason for the slowing is never fully explored and humans fail to find a solution to the problem. This is definitely not the main focus of Ms. Walker's work as she chooses instead to describe the human side of the tragedy.
But it's worth overlooking these flaws. On the whole, "The Age of Miracles" is a dark and beautiful book that follows the trials and tribulations of one child as she tries to survive middle school and family life -- and also tracks society's reaction to a bizarre natural disaster.
• Jackie Stewart is a freelance writer in New York.