No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016/78: The Age of Miracles -- Karen Thompson Walker

After the slowing, every action required a little more force than it used to. The physics had changed. Take, for example, the slightly increased drag of a hand on a knife or a finger on a trigger. From then on, we all had a little more time to decide what not to do. And who knows how fast a second-guess can travel? Who has ever measured the exact speed of regret?[loc. 525]

The Earth's rotation slows, making days longer: ecological and sociological disaster ensue, as crops fail, the magnetosphere thins, and the US Government decrees that America will run on 'clock time' -- meaning that noon might be the middle of the dark hours.

This is not the plot, though: this is the background. The plot revolves around Julia, an eleven-year-old girl living in California, who observes the world changing from the self-absorbed perspective of an adolescent. Her best friend is taken away by her family, who believe that the slowing is a sign of God's wrath; Julia's mother starts hoarding food and showing signs of 'the syndrome'; their neighbour Sylvia rejects clock time and asserts that humans can adapt to the new rhythms of nature; and Julia's grandfather restocks his nuclear-proof bunker.

Age of Miracles is a coming-of-age story, set in a world that is slowly disintegrating: nothing can be trusted to remain the same, a sound metaphor for adolescence. It's a beautifully-written book, and Walker's choice of narrator means that any flaws or fallacies in the science can be glossed over as a product of the character's ignorance. (I did get annoyed when she referred to astronauts on the space station -- stranded because all the equations have changed -- as being 'ten thousand miles higher' than hot air balloons. Nope, two hundred and fifty miles higher, give or take. Or is this poetic hyperbole?)

Julia witnesses the breakdown of the modern world -- a kind of slow apocalypse -- with the same fascinated semi-comprehension that she turns on the people around her. Her father may be having an affair; her own budding relationship with Seth Moreno has more, and more surreal, hurdles to overcome than the typical pre-teen romance. Julia is (though she doesn't admit it) painfully lonely: her first-person narrative, looking back from the vantage point of her late teens, is focussed more on the relationships around her than on the invisible catastrophe that is changing everything.

The Age of Miracles is a compelling read. I didn't know, when I read it, that it had been sold for a record-breaking advance ($1m). I'm not sure that it's that good: but the juxtaposition of slow catastrophe and adolescent angst worked for me.

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