The Day the Earth Slowed Down – ‘The Age of Miracles’ by Karen Thompson Walker

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.


6 thoughts on “The Day the Earth Slowed Down – ‘The Age of Miracles’ by Karen Thompson Walker

  1. I really couldn’t disagree more with your review! This book was never going to be about a global catastrophe in the sense that you would see what would happen everywhere around the world…. you know from reading the blurb it’s one girl’s point of view. Karen never set out to do that, and I for one am glad she didn’t. I can’t believe you would recommend The Testimony over this – I couldn’t even finish it! lol.

    I thought The Age of Miracles was a perfect portrayal of a young girl approaching adolescence, struggling to fit in at school, coping with loneliness and being the outsider, and then to top it off, her experience of first love… It reminded me so much of my own youth, that I just connected with her character instantly. I didn’t want to know what was going on around the world, I wanted to know what was happening in Julia’s world, and that’s what I got.

    I literally read this in a couple of days, so for me, there was plenty of tension and that need to read on to find out what happens next. I didn’t care that you never found out why the slowing was happening, because it’s just not really the point.

    Yes I could agree to some extent that this sort of story has been done before, but no one has quite written it in the way Karen has, or made me react in such an emotional way before. I thought the whole concept of the novel was fascinating, there were consequences to the slowing that had never even crossed my mind!

    It reminded me a lot of The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, another ‘catastrophe’ novel seen through the eyes of one young girl…another excellent novel, in my opinion – no doubt you will disagree 😉

    Anyway….there’s my bit said!

  2. One of the things I love about books, is that two people can read the same text and have such different responses.

    Having reread my review, I see I imply more strongly than I intended that I wanted to see how things panned out globally. Whilst I would love to read a novel coming from this direction, I don’t criticise Walker for not doing it. I was more than happy for their to be no explanation for the slowing. For what Walker was trying to do, it was unnecessary. I just think she failed in what she set out to do.

    What didn’t work for me, is that the rest of the world barely impinges on Julia’s consciousness. I know teenagers are self-absorbed, but the global response to such an event would have deep ramifications on everybody’s lives. Instead things pretty much carry on as normal, but it gets dark at funny times. In a time of Twitter and the like its impossible she would have remained so isolated.

    As for identifying with the lead character, it’s a long time since, I was an adolescent, and I’ve never (to my knowledge) been a girl. If you say you identified wholly with Julia, I can see why you enjoyed the novel a lot more than I did. I imagine our responses to Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ would be quite different; I don’t think that novel could have as much power for a reader who isn’t a Dad. I have to say though Julia felt like an adult’s idea of what a teenage girl is like, but I’m not clearly not qualified to comment!

    Perhaps my need for greater global context stems from being a parent. Teenager’s self centredness doesn’t play well, when your overriding fear would be what is going to happen to the world, and my children? Perhaps this is why I liked the testimony so much, because if offered a window on what might happen to the world?

    Jessie Lamb is on my list, so If I ever get to it, I’ll let you know. I thought Delirium was superb, and it explores many similar themes to Age of Miracles.

  3. Oh see I think teenagers generally don’t think about the world…. I’m pretty sure I didn’t when I was young, at least not until 9/11 happened. Kids are too absorbed in their own little worlds to think beyond that. I do think women will identify a lot more with this book than men though, that’s for sure. Maybe Walker could have delved deeper into Julia’s character, but overall I think she portrayed her very well.

    I have a copy of Delirium to read so when I’ve read that, and you’ve read Jessie Lamb, we will have to compare notes again!! 🙂

  4. I would have to disagree with your review. Think back to when you were 11. What world events directly impacted you? Young people and teenagers are pretty much wrapped up in themselves. I really, really enjoyed this novel. Yes, the world is spinning slower, but really, what can Julia do about it? She lives her life, and tries to deal with being lonely and not popular, and is interested in a boy, who finally becomes interested in her. As for the days and nights being long, she pretty much just had to deal with it and the anxiety of not knowing if or when it will stop.

    If you are male, then yeah, you probably didn’t appreciate the female point of view. But this is what a lot of lonely girls have to deal with. Watching your friends turn into beautiful young women, and getting male attention, and knowing that it’s probably going to be a different story for you. This book had just enough technical details. I don’t want to be overwhelmed by stats. Sometimes, leaving stuff to a reader’s imagination is one of the best things you can do as an author.

    1. Hi Gloria,
      Thanks for taking time to post. I think part of the trouble I had with this book was perhaps not realising that the narrator was quite so young. I suspect I had her pigeonholed as the YA standard 15 or 16. My pre-teen years are so far away, that I confess I do find it hard to remember what it was like.

      Having said that, I was 9 when the Falklands conflict took place, and I do remember that impinging on my world view quite significantly. I find it hard to believe with our current media saturated world, that an 11 yr old would express no knowledge of the wider impact, even to mention how tedious the saturation was.

      If you compare this to similar novels The Testament of Jessie Lamb or Playing Tyler (out next month and reviewed here soon), I think this is sadly lacking. (Though they are both more traditional YA novels).

      One final observation, in trying to reply to your comment, I find I can remember almost nothing of the book. This alone speaks volume.

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