With all those pesky rumours that the world might end on the 21st of December 2012, when the Mayan calendar ends (though one does have to ask where are those Mayans now?), there seems to be an abundance in novels about the end of the world. Either that or maybe it is just that I am noticing them more. Apocalypse fiction isn’t something that I tend to be that interested in as a rule however after a nice steady buzz, not quite hype, started to build around it, I became intrigued by ‘The Age of Miracles’ a debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker which looks at the apocalypse in a rather unusual way. It has become one of my books of the year so far, a little to my surprise.
Normally with a novel that focuses on the end, or possible end, of the world there tends to be something massive that threatens civilisation from the start be it a meteor, disease, sudden infestation of zombies/vampires etc. With ‘The Age of Miracles’ Karen Thompson walker does something much subtler, and yet as she builds the novel it is equally terrifying, when the Earth’s rotation on its axis starts to slow. Initially the ‘slowing’ is just that a few unnoticeable minutes here and there but then it becomes hours and days start to last for seventy two hours or more.
‘We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it. We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin. We were distracted back then by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode in the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Seconds beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours, too, weren’t still pooling into days, each the same fixed length known to every human being.’
I have nothing against science fiction, it just isn’t the genre I normally read, yet I did wonder with this premise if ‘The Age of Miracles’ might become a little bit too scientific. Would we be following some scientists as they tried to prevent the slowing or try and create a space rocket to another ‘earth like’ planet. Again here Karen Thompson Walker does something very clever and slightly understated in that our narrator is eleven year old Julia who hears the news on the TV, her mother going into utter panic and her father taking a much calmer view. To call this a slightly domestic setting for the possible end of the world would be unfair as what we get is the human aspect through the eyes of Julia and the pandemonium, or nonchalance, with which people in the suburbs of California initially treat it with and then you also get the scientific and political aspects through the news as Julia and her family watch it.
‘We were living under a new gravity, too subtle for our minds to register, but our bodies were already subject to its sway. In the weeks that followed, as the days continued to expand, I would find it harder and harder to kick a soccer ball across a field. Quarterbacks found that footballs didn’t fly as far as they used to. Home-run hitters slipped into slumps. Pilots would have to retrain themselves to fly. Every falling thing fell faster to the ground.’
I will admit I had a further worry that also proved to be completely unfounded and also the factor that made the book such a success with me. The child narrator in a novel can be a problem in a novel, they can come across as being annoyingly precocious or irritatingly innocent and sweet, it can make or break a book. Julia is neither of these things, she comes of the page as a fully formed young girl, though I thought as the novel went on that she was much older forgetting the book was written from her hindsight perspective, and through her eyes we see how the normal becomes abnormal and how it is not just the big issues that change but how people’s personalities, responses and relationships change. It gives the book a real human feel to it and you have a real emotive response to her.
‘What I understood so far about life was that there were the bullies and the bullied, the hunters and the hunted, the strong and the stronger and the weak, and so far I had never fallen into any group – I was one of the rest, a quiet girl with an average face, one in the harmless and unharmed crowd. But it seemed all at once that this balance had shifted. With so many kids missing from the bus stop, all the hierarchies were changing. A mean thought passed through my mind: I didn’t belong in this position; it should have been one of the uglier girls, Diane or Teresa or Jill. Or Rachel. Where was Rachel? She was the nerdiest one among us. But she’d been kept home by her mother to prepare and prey – they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, convinced that this was the end of days.’
I thought that ‘The Age of Miracles’ was a truly marvellous novel, definitely one of the highlights of the year so far for me. Naturally because I loved it so much I am finding it very difficult to do the book justice as I feel I missed so much out. I was so lost in the book that I felt the people’s dread and I felt like I was with Julia along the way; I got very upset several times, and as the book went on worried all the more. I was hooked. It seems almost patronising to say ‘I was also really shocked this was a debut novel’ yet if I am honest I was. Karen Thompson Walkers prose is wonderful in the fact it captures the changing atmosphere of the people and the planet, and I should mention here the brilliant way she creates a divided society with people who keep ‘clock time’ and people who decide to live with the earth’s new unnaturally timed days, and also ever so slowly and skilfully builds up the tensions in relationships, fear and terror as the earth slows down and the book leads to its conclusion.
The best way to finish my book thoughts on this, as I could go on and on, is to summarise like this… If the end really is nigh I have read one of my favourite books in a long time during the final few months which is no bad thing. I highly, highly recommend you read this before the 21st of December, just in case, as you would be missing out.