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 the skin.
We were distracted back then by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode on 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 know to every human being. (pg. 3)
My mother was filling a copper can with water for the two white milky orchids that lived in the kitchen window. Her attention to her plants had increase since the start of the slowing, as if our survival somehow hinged on theirs. Or maybe it was something else entirely. Beauty can be a very reassuring thing. (pg. 87)
If you have a book about a young girl entering sixth grade (and middle school) with tension in her house, tension among her friends, and wondering where she fits with herself, her home, her world you may have expectations about what will happen – lots of angst, lots of wondering, lots of tension, lots of worry – perhaps a first love, perhaps some bad decisions, experiments with clothes or make-up, all the typical parts of a coming-of-age story. If you have a book about a world-wide crisis that includes the potential end of earth as we know it and you have similar expectations – a run on food, a break down of order, the rise of fringe groups. Put these two very different genres together and you have Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel, The Age of Miracles.
It is easy to say that this novel is a mish-mash of formulas. It is easy to say that an author that uses two such different approaches risks diluting her message. And I have read a few reviews that say something similar to either of these two statements. My experience of the book was different. I found it to be a remarkable coming-of-age story. I also found it to be an intriguing story about what would happen if the world started to spin more slowly. And I found the story of the world slowing enhancing the other story giving an added poignancy to the book.
Maybe it had begun to happen before the slowing but it was only afterward that I realized it. My friendships were disintegrating. Things were coming apart. It was a rough crossing, the one from childhood to the next life. And as with any other harsh journey, not everything survived. (pg. 92)
Julia is an only child living in a southern California beach town. She lives with her mother, a former actress and now high school drama teacher and her father who is an obstetrician. Julia will soon be turn twelve years old and is navigating the shoals of middle school, the Age of Miracles according to the author. In the midst of all this, she wake up on morning and discovers, along with the rest of the world, that the earth has started slowing and the days have grown by minutes.
Scientists scramble for answers, politicians ask people to continue on and buy, and people make a run for the grocery stores. Some people pack up and leave town and others hunker down. Soon society returns to some sort of normal as the earth continues to slow. The birds have trouble flying, gravity changes, tides change forcing evacuation of coastal areas. The governments decide to stay on clock time while a small minority decides to stay on day time.
And Julia struggles to continue going on in this environment with her mother becoming more dramatic, her father distancing himself from his wife, and her grandfather focused on government conspiracies while obsessing over his many possessions. More of a listener that talker, an observer rather than participant, she finds herself on the outside of the social cliques spending the lunch hour in the library. I know of middle school girls who have done this or, even worse, spend their entire lunch period in the bathroom. Middle school is such a boiler room with shifting loyalties and spurned children. The main strength of this novel is how well the author depicts this time of life:
It was that time of life: Talents were rising to the surface, weaknesses were beginning to show through, we were finding out what kind of people we would be. Some would turn out beautiful, some funny, some shy. Some would be smart, others smarter. The chubby ones would likely always be chubby. The beloved, I sensed, would be beloved for life. And I worried that loneliness might work that ay, too. Maybe loneliness might work that way, too. Maybe loneliness was imprinted in my genes, lying dormant for years but now coming into full bloom. (pg. 189)
There are many lovely passages in the novel, too many to quote and not give some of the plot away. Walker has a deft way with words. In the following passage she is describing the atmosphere in Julia’s house after an incident. I remember a friend of mine who described the toxicity of breakfast at her house. Her parents did not want to burden the children with their bitter arguments so they fought at night leaving all that tension hanging in the air in the morning:
Later, I tried but mostly failed to sleep the last hour before my alarm clock sounded. Meanwhile, my parents argued through their bedroom door. I could hear not what was said but what was expressed, the anger radiating through the door. (pg. 199)
One of my friends told me after reading this book that it speaks to any woman who was once twelve years old. It brings back that time in a bittersweet way – of changing bodies and dying friendships, of finding footing in an unsettle world and the possibility of first love. I thought this novel was spot on and I greatly enjoyed reading it. Think back to being twelve wondering what your place was with your family, your friends, your world. Struggling for firm ground, in search of who you are with circumstances that change every minute. This is what this book captured for me. The ending was spot on summing up the whole experience of this time of life in just a few, evocative words – for me that is the sign of a novelist who understands the human condition.
In closing, here is a portion of an interview with the author that appears on the novel’s Amazon.com page:
Julia’s voice–the voice of a young woman looking back on her adolescence–came into my head as soon as I had the idea of the slowing. It was the only way I could imagine writing the book. Adolescence is an extraordinary time of life, a period when the simple passage of time results in dramatic consequences, when we grow and change at seemingly impossible speeds. It seemed natural to tell the story of the slowing, which is partly about time, in the context of middle school. It was also a way of concentrating on the fine-grain details of everyday life, which was very important to me. I was interested in exploring the ways in which life carries on, even in the face of profound uncertainty.
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