If you are going use a title as grandiose as ‘The Age of Miracles’, then you had better make sure you produce something special. This novel has an elegant premise and some very readable prose, but unfortunately Karen Thompson Walker fails to deliver.
‘The Age of Miracles’ poses a simple question; what would happen if the Earth’s rotation slowed down? Firstly days (and nights) will get longer, but what effect will this have on humanity, and on the planet itself? Walker’s novel examines both the physical and psychological fallout, with an emphasis on the latter. I am not in a position to put forward any theories as to what might happen should the Earth slow down, but for the rapid rate of slowing described in the novel, the effects on the planet feel under-powered. In some ways this doesn’t matter; this is not a novel soaked in science. Walker has picked her premise – what would happened if our days keep lengthening?, and makes no effort to explain the how and the why, because it’s immaterial to what she wants to show.
Unfortunately, the complete lack of background, overshadows the human interactions she wants to examine. For a novel powered by a global phenomenon this is a parochial affair. Its narrator, Julia, is a high-school student in small-town America, with a stable home life, and all the usual problems than come with being a teenager. The scope of the novel rarely extends beyond Julia’s life, which is a shame. I would like to have seen more about what happens elsewhere on the planet, in particular how the geopolitics might play out, but other than the occasional mention, the rest of the world seems not to exist.
What we do have is a fairly typical, end-of-the-world/dystopian society romance. But there is little conflict. Julia hankers after a cool kid, but she’s unpopular. School muddles on, although as other families leave the area, Julia becomes more and more isolated. Does she get her man? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out. The novel is narrated in the first person, from some time after the slowing occurred. Walker uses lots of foreshadowing, which becomes really annoying. Julia is forever saying things like, ‘Little did we know it was the last time we’d ever see her’ and ‘at that time, almost nothing was known about the syndrome’; it’s a lazy way to generate tension. And that’s the biggest problem with the novel, despite the premise, there is almost no suspense. People behave pretty reasonably, and like the Earth, the novel slowly winds down without a whimper.
The tagline on my copy reads, ‘It was, at the beginning, a quite invisible catastrophe.’ Leaving aside the interest-sapping use of the word ‘quite’, this neatly sums up the failings of the novel. Invisible catastrophes don’t make for interesting reading. The novel is an age of miracles, where almost nothing miraculous happens. There is the odd unfortunate coincidence, but there is nothing in this novel to make the reader go ‘Wow!’ It’s certainly readable, and undoubtedly moving in places, but it all feels too clean and artificial. Even many of the human interactions fall flat. Everybody seems to take the impending end of the world very calmly, and the school children are the least convincing teenagers I’ve ever encountered. Julia’s fragmented friendships are laughably flat.
Everything in this novel has been done before and so much better. If you want a compelling catastrophe novel try James Smythe’s The Testimony. If you want an end-of-days romance, under difficult circumstances, there’s Lauren Oliver’s ‘Delirium’. Indeed there are countless novels that deal with the same themes, so much more effectively. (I urge you to try Neal Shusterman’s ‘Unwind’) It’s a shame as there is some great writing here, but ‘The Age of Miracles’ fails to pack enough punch.