Friday, 25 October 2013

The Age of Miracles - Book Review

The Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker

On a seemingly ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, 11-year-old Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer, gravity is affected, the environment is thrown into disarray. Yet as she struggles to navigate an ever-shifting landscape, Julia is also coping with the normal disasters of everyday life--the fissures in her parents’ marriage, the loss of old friends, the hopeful anguish of first love, the bizarre behavior of her grandfather who, convinced of a government conspiracy, spends his days obsessively cataloging his possessions. As Julia adjusts to the new normal, the slowing inexorably continues.

With spare, graceful prose and the emotional wisdom of a born storyteller, Karen Thompson Walker has created a singular narrator in Julia, a resilient and insightful young girl, and a moving portrait of family life set against the backdrop of an utterly altered world. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

I read this as part of the Richard and Judy Book Club Challenge. This is one that I was really looking forward to. It’s a character focussed end-of-the-world story with a very unique and slow-moving disaster, and I was excited to see how the author would approach it.

Okay, so what’s the disaster? Well, at first glance, it doesn’t seem like the most earth-shattering of apocalypses: the world’s rotation is slowing down, and will eventually come to a complete stop. The days and nights are getting longer. What’s so brilliant about this is that the disaster creeps up on both the characters and the reader. It’s hard at first to contemplate how extreme the consequences of this might be, and so it is for the characters, who, after the initial panic, either try to ignore the disaster or simply tell themselves that someone else will fix it.

And yet, if the world were to slowly stop turning... what would happen? Days and nights would get longer, and we would find ourselves living days, then whole weeks, then longer, in constant darkness followed by constant light. Gravity would be affected – in this book birds begin to have trouble flying, and then fall from the sky. Planes begin to experience similar problems. As nights lengthen into weeks and months of total darkness, crops would die and the world would experience extreme food shortages. The long nights would be dangerously cold. The long days would be dangerously hot. Eventually, conditions would become too extreme for life over most of the Earth. This disaster starts out almost gently, unnoticed by all but a few, and yet develops relentlessly. And unlike some other, seemingly more dramatic, disaster stories, this one really does seem to be leading to the end of human life on Earth.

I love these kinds of stories, in which what seem like small changes can have devastating or incredible consequences. I also tend to prefer this kind of slow moving disaster/apocalypse story to the flashier, action-packed ones. However, there was something lacking here that meant that I never quite got the ‘wow’ feeling from this book. I thought the author wrote her characters and the human reactions to the crisis very convincingly, but there were points where the protagonist’s point of view was a little frustrating. She is a young girl (a fact that sometimes jars with the writing style), and so sometimes the typical teenage worries of her daily life concern her more than the world around her. I did like this touch, but felt that it became too much the focus of the book. The disaster itself became so background at points that it felt like an interesting setting for a coming of age story, rather than an element that should have been woven more carefully throughout all aspects of the book (for example, how something like Life As We Knew It handles a similar kind of disaster story). Because of this, there were parts where the plot felt quite lacklustre to me, and where the main character was not really interesting enough to hold up the book. Still, that’s very much down to my personal taste, and I think others may prefer that the story’s focus is always on the normal rather than the strange.

I enjoyed the way that details were introduced a little at a time. This worked very well, because it means that the reader experiences the disaster from the same position as the main character, not knowing enough, but knowing a little too much for comfort. I would have preferred the story to cover a slightly longer period of time, simply because I wanted to see what further slowing would look like in terms of human civilisation, and for similar reasons I wish we could have seen a little more of what was happening elsewhere in the world. This is a ‘what if?’ book, and so I want to actually see that question answered as much as possible. I don’t necessarily want science or explanations, but I want to see the consequences.

However, I can understand why the author did not do this, and I appreciated the unique approach to a disaster story: this is the age of miracles, not the age of disaster. It is the age when the world is moving from ‘normal’ into something new, when society is still trying to cling to absolutely everything it can from its old life, before having to face the truth. What makes this so different from almost every other story of its type is that it’s not a story about survival, not at all. It’s a story about living with ideas and routines of the past, as the world changes slowly around you; about denial and acceptance. So, although the story was not perhaps exactly what I was hoping for, it was a very interesting and unique one, and I enjoyed reading it.


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