November 11, 2012

Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Published: 2012, Random House
Genre: Adult Fiction
Source: Library book

I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different — unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.

One of my good friends recommended this book to me many months ago and I only recently received my hold from the library. This book has certainly been garnering a lot of press, although after reading it myself I'm a little surprised it's received so much attention. It's not a happy book. In fact, reading it made me rather depressed. I guess it's ultimate message is that humans will continue to find ways to survive against tough odds is good, but still not the happiest of messages. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker was an emotionally difficult read for me, but also a thought-provoking one.

Saturday morning starts out the same as always. Julia and her best friend Hanna are in Julia's kitchen, readying breakfast before a soccer game, when their lives are irrevocably altered. Scientists from around the world are reporting the fact that the Earth's rotation is inexplicably slowing. Days and nights begin to gradually lengthen, with no end in sight. People panic: some move across states or countries, others begin to stockpile food, and others call it the final days. Soon the days get to such a point that a divide forms between the official governmental choice to follow "clock time," regardless of the state of the sun at those hours, while others try to adapt to the lengthening days and nights. Gravity is off, causing birds to die, soccer balls to fly not quite as far, and a sickness within many people.

This is the world that Julia must learn to adapt to as she also grapples with the normal pressures of middle school, changing friendships, and first love.

Eleven-year-old Julia is the protagonist of our story, although an older version of her is clearly the narrator. The writing style is exquisite and there are so many beautiful and thought-provoking quotes that I'd continually refer back to as I was reading. Although I loved the writing itself, it did make me feel more of a distance from Julia and her current situation. Because the voice was clearly older and reflecting back on this time in Julia's life, from the beginning I had the idea that somehow life on Earth was going to continue for quite a bit, so that Julia would have time to mature to fit the narrative voice. To be fair, I was happy to lose a bit of the suspense and know that the ending couldn't be super imminent if Julia does grow older.

I do think that focusing the story on a child's perspective was a good choice on Walker's part. Julia is old enough to know how huge a problem the slowing of the Earth is, yet she also is able to view things from a child's more tempered perspective. I can't even imagine reading this same story from her mother's perspective, who becomes paranoid from the beginning and becomes quickly affected by the slowing sickness. I'm sure that basically any adult protagonist would have turned this story down a much more depressing route (not to say that this story isn't depressing anyway). At least life goes on for Julia, and she is able to find little things to do and enjoy in her life.

I wish, however, that I had felt more of an attachment to Julia. I mean, I should have felt an attachment to the entire human race as I continued to read about how screwed they all were. And I did. The slowing isn't exactly what distances Julia from most human interactions, although it definitely has a part in it. Overall, though, Julia is incredibly passive and emotionally distant. When Hanna's family leaves for Utah, Julia makes absolutely no effort to befriend or even interact with anyone else. She waits for others to make the first moves. I understand that middle school is a really difficult, confusing time for most people. It was for me. But I wanted Walker to give me some reason to care for Julia, something besides the fact that she, like every other inhabitant on Earth, is affected by the slowing.

Speculative fiction is not my go-to genre for a very good reason. I watched the film "The Day After Tomorrow" with my geology class as part of our discussion on climate change. That experience was better than many other experiences I've had watching films or reading books dealing with climate change and the end of the world due to natural disasters, mostly because in my class we discussed specifics about how sensationalized that film was. Unfortunately I read The Age of Miracles by myself, which left me to internally process all my dark thoughts and despair over human life. The Age of Miracles would never be an easy read for me, but it was made worse by the fact that I was reading it right as Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey, New York City, and other parts of the East Coast. As I'm writing this review a week after the hurricane, many people still do not have power and destruction and chaos continue to reign. Although the novel is about something arguably more fictional - the Earth's rotation slowing - it still brings to my mind all the damage that humanity is bringing to the Earth. I could imagine only too well how people and nations would react to catastrophic damages on the Earth due to our own ways of living. 

As difficult as this book was for me to read, perhaps it is good that The Age of Miracles has managed to garner so much national attention. I do feel like global warming and environmental damages that humans make upon the Earth are too easily brushed aside. It's not that people necessarily refuse to admit the potential for bad things to occur, but it's also one of those instances where it's hard to imagine what we can do to make things better. How can one person begin to enact change on such a major issue? How can people even begin to come together to do something? But this is an issue that does need to be addressed, and I am glad that Walker was able to do so through her debut novel. For those who don't mind an underdeveloped protagonist and depressing subject matter for a quick read about an important and thought-provoking issue, I'd say give The Age of Miracles a try.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I really enjoyed this one, but it did have a deep undercurrent of sadness. It was somewhat unsettling to read the book, though I did like the subtlety of the end of the world scenario it featured. Excellent review!

    1. It definitely did. A hard read, but I am glad I read it, and even more glad of the questions and implications and all that it caused me to consider. Thank you, Steph!

  2. Yeah, despite the beautiful writing in this one, I really just didn't connect with it either. It was a really depressing (but interesting) look at humanity. I did like the slow apocalypse idea, and I honestly really appreciate that this wasn't a disaster caused by humans, but rather that the disaster came along with their reaction to it.

    1. Agreed. Was the disaster completely unrelated to humans, though? I looked at some other reviews and press releases about this book, and it seemed as though many said that they thought the slowing was caused by humanity in some way. It's possible that I understood that incorrectly; it does seem a little farfetched that human activity could cause the Earth to slow like that.


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