I’ve been hearing book chatter around The Age of Miracles for some time now and when a reader whose views I really respect named it in her five best books of 2012 I thought I had better do something about it and get hold of a copy. Bless the public library service, who had it here in three days flat.
The premise of this first novel by Karen Thompson Walker is an interesting one. Set in modern California and told in retrospect through the voice of Julia, who was eleven when the action begins, the story starts with an announcement that the Earth’s rotation on its axis has slowed and as a result the days are growing longer. Initially, this might sound like a very good idea, after all, who’s going to grumble about an extra half hour in bed each morning, but as the ‘slowing’ becomes more marked it becomes clear that the drawbacks vastly outweigh the benefits.
Imagine days that last fifty or more hours. How do you cope with twenty-five or thirty hours of sun or twenty-five or thirty hours of darkness? More importantly, how does the plant world cope? What happens when you pass the wheat point, that moment when it is no longer possible for grains to be grown in the climatic conditions prevailing? How do you cope as gravity begins to change, as birds can no longer fly and the tidal flow becomes so extreme that coastal housing is washed away?
As I say, it’s an interesting and worrying premise. Like all the best Science Fiction it’s just feasible enough to be taken seriously. And yet, this isn’t really a book that I would classify as Science Fiction. It seems to me that Thompson Walker is actually more concerned with what happens to human relationships when those eternal verities that we have always taken for granted are suddenly challenged. Left on her own at the school bus-stop because her friend Hanna’s family has moved out of town at the first sign of trouble, Julia recognises this as she becomes the target for bad kid Daryl’s taunting.
What I understood so far about this 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’d never fall into any group – I was one of the rest, a quiet girl with an average face, one of 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.
Hanna’s Mormon family has left for Utah to assemble with others of their faith to await the end of days. However, as time passes it is not religious difference that divide communities, but questions to do with how life should be lived under conditions that are not only new but still unstable. Two weeks in from the initial acknowledgement of the slowing, the government decrees that everyone will live on ‘clock time’ and that days will still have twenty-four hours despite the fact that this will mean ignoring what nature appears to be telling you. Most people fit in with this, especially as it is the only way you can retain your job, but a sizeable minority are determined to live on ‘real time’ and eventually, the cultural clashes that result lead to ostracism and persecution.
In many respects, this makes the book a more interesting read than it might have been had it simply explored the scientific ramifications of such a phenomenon, but as I came to the end I was curiously unsatisfied. It’s true that I had been irritated throughout by one of my personal niggles, the ‘little did we know what was coming’ statements that kept popping up in the narrative, but it wasn’t simply that. It was the problem that haunts so many books, namely, ‘I’ve had a good idea but how do I bring it to a satisfactory conclusion’. I’m not going to say anything about how the novel does end. You need to read it and see for yourself whether you think the final pages bind well with what has gone before. But I was left almost saying ‘So what?’
I wasn’t so put off that I wouldn’t read another book by Thompson Walker, indeed, I’d like to see where such an inventive mind goes next, but at the (thankfully predictable) end of the day, I wasn’t quite certain why there has been such a fuss about this one.