What a lovely, lovely book! Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles takes a terrifying science fiction idea and turns it into a touching coming of age story. When the Earth’s rotation begins to slow, eleven year old Julia barely even notices. Some people were terrified about the end of the world, but when the entire world is affected, where can you run? The effects are slow but inexorable, and even as a reader, panic turns to horror and, eventually, to resignation. Julia’s world is ending, and Bruce Willis isn’t about to launch a spaceship to save it.
This then is where the power of Walker’s story lies: when you can’t prevent the end of the world, what else is left but to live your life as best you can? Walker creates a complex world, and offers social commentary. Society, for example, is divided into those using clock time (following the 24-hour clock despite the schedule of daylight) and those using real time. “I’ve never liked her lifestyle,” Julia’s mother sniffs, speaking of real time user Sylvia. “It’s not our business how she chooses to live her life,” Julia’s father responds. This type of conversation sounds familiar, eh? The world stops spinning, people will go on being judgmental. Another real time user tells Julia’s family:
You probably think we’re a bunch of pipe dreamers out here […] but it’s just the opposite. We’re not the ones in denial. […] We’re the realists. You’re the dreamers. [p. 214]
Indeed, the clock time users are dreamers, desperately clinging on to a world that no longer exists. Ostensibly about something as quotidian as telling time, Walker creates a powerful metaphor here, a searing portrait of our own society.
Even more potent perhaps is the deeply personal thread to this story. In an especially poignant scene, Julia decides to buy herself a training bra. This insistence on a ritual of growing up, even in the face of the world ending, is a lovely fist pump against circumstances. It also stands out as one of the few times Julia, an all-around good girl who hesitates to cut class even with the world going topsy turvy, deliberately defies her mother. It’s that important to her. And that’s why it’s utterly heartbreaking when she gets home and realizes the bra is much uglier than it seemed at the store:
One of the seams was already coming loose. Even worse was the way the cups rippled unsexily across my chest, like two empty water balloons waiting to be filled. [p. 155]
It’s a young girl’s heartache, and a deeply moving reminder that she may never have the chance to fill those cups. Julia’s concerns about family, friendship and friendship are all rendered even more poignant by the urgency, and inevitable futility, of her situation.
The ending, the final chapter in particular, is absolutely beautiful.
Thank you to Random House Canada for a finished copy of this book as a prize in the Random Reader Challenge: John Irving. I read this book as part of Random House’s Random Reader Challenge: Debut Novels.