The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Simon & Schuster 2013 paperback. Image: simonandschuster.co.uk
Simon & Schuster 2013 paperback. Image: simonandschuster.co.uk

When The Age of Miracles came out last year it was a very ‘buzzy’ book that got a lot of good reviews, both in media and the blogosphere. It was also very popular and much talked-about because it was Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel, and was written in the mornings before she went to work as a book editor. It is indeed very well-formed for a debut novel, and Thompson Walker’s experience in the publishing industry is evident in the subtlety and confidence of the writing. It took me a while to pick it up, but I was excited to read The Age of Miracles. I was attracted to the concept that young Julia, our narrator, experiences the changes and drama of growing up alongside the phenomenon of the world beginning to turn more slowly. The laws of physics are defied, and the Earth’s rotation begins to slow. The days and nights get longer and longer, and no one knows why.

This is an unusual idea, and I appreciate the creativity involved in Thompson Walker coming up with it, and the research she would have had to do to speculate how ‘the slowing’ would affect the physical world. Julia is eleven, dealing with her schoolmates becoming teenagers, fancying a boy, and her parents struggling to maintain the balance of their marriage. She is naive in many ways, but sensible and calm too. In fact, for me, she was a little too calm, to the point where she seemed to have barely any reaction to the dramatic and sometimes tragic events that happen around her.

My 2013 Simon & Schuster paperback copy boasts a quote on the cover from The Sunday Times, comparing The Age of Miracles to The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, and in some ways I can see why. Some years ago I read about half of The Lovely Bones before I gave up on it in frustration, as I could not connect with Susie and her depressing but often unemotional story. Similarly, Julia’s dreamlike depiction of her changing world is blank and dull. She contains her emotions, perhaps because she cannot accept or process what is happening, but instead she seems empty and I wondered where her personality was. For me she was very hard to relate to; her emotions show sometimes, but she does nothing. Everything just seems to pass her by. Because of this the ending of the book was quite unsatisfying – I finished it and thought ‘is that it?’ Julia is disconnected from her world, and manages to make this incredible story seem completely depressing and ordinary.

The Age of Miracles could have been so much more than it is. For me, if it had a different narrator it would have been so much better. There is also the question of ‘what happened next?’ So much is changed by the slowing, people’s lives are turned upside down; but in the end the world just trudges on. Those who remain on ‘clock time’ are the majority, and those who decide to live on ‘real time’, adapting to the changing days and nights, are considered outsiders. They are targeted, driven out of their homes. Colonies form in the desert. But this is all just a matter of fact. It just happens, and that’s it. Sigh.

Initially there is a sense of impending doom, the worry that everyone is going to die and the world is going to end; but nothing happens. It all fizzles out. Like the book as whole. What a shame.

*

Published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster.

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4 thoughts on “The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker”

  1. Interesting points. I loved this book, but I’ve also read some other negative reviews of it. Possibly the distance in the storytelling is because Julia is telling her story many years later instead of in the moment? I guess that doesn’t really solve much, though, if you feel the storytelling should be richer. I did really like the ending, though. It felt realistic, and I like not having the answers; it follows the theme that life goes on. No matter what happens, people just have to go on living their lives. Sorry this book didn’t live up to the hype for you :/

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    1. Actually I do agree that Julia looking back at her childhood could create some distance, and I do agree that the ‘life goes on’ concept is present. I think the problem for me came from the feeling that I didn’t know why Julia was telling this story – why it was so important. It changed everything but for me Julia made it seem like any other thing that might have happened when she was young – she didn’t make it seem remarkable enough. I’m still glad I read it though, to see what it was like for myself.

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