Book Review: The Age of Miracles

How long do you think it would take to notice days slowing down? How many extra minutes would rack up before you started to wonder whether something strange was happening? How much later than usual would the sun have to set or rise for you to know, with certainty, that some fundamental shift was occurring? And once you knew… what would you do about it?

Of course, as eleven-year-old Julia quickly understands when the Earth’s rotation begins to slow, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. It becomes a matter of working out how to exist in a world where the laws of nature you thought were a given are suddenly exposed as fickle. Not laws after all, but more like guidelines, or ever-shifting goalposts.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker, is a book with an undeniably fascinating premise. And for a story that actually has very little, at least on the surface, to do with the inexplicable slowing of Earth’s spin, I was impressed by how careful the author was to keep the effects progressing plausibly in the background.

The sun rises over a foggy town.
How much attention do you usually pay to the sun rising? Would you notice if it happened a few seconds late? A few minutes?
Image by winterseitler from Pixabay

It might not be quite accurate to say that the story hasn’t got much to do with the slowing. Julia, our protagonist, keeps track of the way people are responding to the ever-lengthening days and nights. She observes the way people change, the way they behave, the way they interact with each other. From the beginning, she exhibits an awareness that the slowing has affected more than just day and night. It might be difficult to attribute certain things to the slowing – relationship breakdowns, aggression, impulsive behaviours – but Julia knows at her core that there’s a link there. Already a quiet, observant sort of girl as the story opens, Julia withdraws even further into herself as the world around her becomes mysterious and vaguely threatening in more than just the usual ways it might appear as such to a timid teenage girl. She watches, she notes, she thinks. She keeps herself to herself.

It’s a very relatable response, and Julia is a thoughtful and eloquent narrator, but I have to confess I didn’t warm to her as a main character. Perhaps it isn’t fair of me, but I was frustrated by Julia’s lack of action throughout the majority of the story. As we’ve established, there’s nothing she could realistically do about the disintegration of time as she knows it, and I can completely sympathise with the way she draws away from others, unsure how to navigate the changing world. I just found it frustrating to read.

Maybe it was a kind of projected frustration; with climate change feeling like a looming threat, am I actually just annoyed at myself for using the fact that it feels beyond my control as an excuse not to put more time and energy into acting against it? It’s hard not to draw parallels with our own world and its challenges, not least because Walker makes a point of mentioning climate change and the human impact on the environment as causes under investigation for some of the observed changes in the planet’s animals and atmosphere over the course of the story.

Anyway, to steer away from the real world parallels for a moment and go back to the book itself, the atmosphere of the story was beautifully crafted. Subtly unsettling, the sense of underlying dread built almost imperceptibly with each passing chapter, as more new effects of the slowing became evident. There is a distant sense of desperation around the measures people take for self-preservation; repurposed bomb shelters and stockpiles of tinned goods. I wonder if this started too early in the novel though, or if Julia’s perpetual shrug of a narrative style made it difficult to really feel any of that fear. I’m sure the subtlety and sense of distance were deliberate, part of the main character’s remove and the overall subdued tone of the story’s emotional journey, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it might have made for some valuable contrast in the novel to have one of those frantically scrambling characters take a more prominent role.

For a book with the word “Miracles” in the title, it was pretty unrelentingly bleak. I don’t mean that as a criticism exactly, just as a statement of fact. In some books the first-person, past-tense narration gives you a current of hope throughout the story; at least the main character is alive and well enough to recount the story later! In Age of Miracles, Julia uses her place in the future to issue regular comments on how much worse everything was going to get, and occasionally to note that some specific moment of joy was being experienced for the last time.

I feel like I’ve been harsher so far than I set out to be upon starting this review. I’m glad I read The Age of Miracles; I think it’s a well-crafted book with an ingenious central conceit. The writing is smooth and the characters, if not particularly deep, have compelling relationships with each other. Maybe I’m just not cut out for stories that resist going somewhere, and I suspect that says more about me than it does about this particular style of book! I think it was very honestly written, and that the desire to carry on and attempt to hold on to normality in the face of impending disaster was realistically portrayed.

I would recommend The Age of Miracles to people who enjoy quietly contemplative stories with an undercurrent of apocalyptic terror. Kidding. (Sort of.) Seriously though, the combination of the mundane day-to-day and the utterly (slightly sinisterly) surreal, and the exploration of how those two things affect each other, reminded me a little of Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. Easily suitable for older children and up, The Age of Miracles may not leave you feeling hopeful, but it will make you think.

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