Monday, June 25, 2012

Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles
Karen Thompson Walker
288 pages
Random House
Published June 26, 2012
ISBN: 9780812992977

What is this book? It's hard to drop it into a nice, clean box because its edges keep poking out and they're painted the colors of Science Fiction, Coming of Age, Family Drama and Young Adult.  The very best books sometimes defy simple genres and it's partially their unwillingness to be shoehorned that puts them above their contemporaries.

Let me introduce you to Hannah. As the novel opens she is twelve years old and just beginning middle school, the "age of miracles" as indicated in the title.  Her father is a doctor, her mother is a former actress and she's close with her grandfather. She has a BFF and they all live in southern California and life is pretty okay.

If you've read any other reviews of this novel or seen the press, you know that the BIG EVENT that drives the narrative is the surprise slowing of the Earth's rotation. The days, you see, are getting longer. And longer still. At first it's just a few minutes and then it becomes hours. In the beginning there are daily announcements to help society keep some sense of normalcy. Things like, "school will begin at this time and end at that time," you get the idea. But after a while it's just too hard to manage and so the government steps in and asks everybody to return to a 24 hour schedule. As you can imagine, it's not long before entire "days" are spent in daylight and vice versa.  Society tries to continue on as if everything is Kool & The Gang, but things are not cool. Not at all.

Society itself is breaking up.  A group of people calling themselves "real-timers" buck the system and attempt to live in accord with the "natural" rise and setting of the sun. Since these people are often awake when the rest of society is sleeping and sleeping when the rest of the society is sleeping, they are mistrusted and hated.

But let's get back to Hannah, because this crazy thing, "the slowing" as it's called, has cracked the foundation of her life.  Her mother, always an emotional woman, is having more emotions and is often mysteriously ill.  Her father is being weird and distant and seems to have some kind of secret.  Her piano teacher, who Hanna loves, has become a "real-timer" and Hannah is no longer allowed to see her.  Best friend?  She's gone too.  As Hannah begins school, she finds herself with no real friends and an increasingly uncomfortable home life.  The days, of course, are getting longer and longer.

What I enjoyed about The Age of Miracles was how it treated the science fiction elements.  There's not too much science and the cause of the slowing is never explained.  The science part only exists to keep the story plausible, leaving essentially a domestic view of a disaster story.  The questions aren't about why the Earth's rotation is slowing, but rather how do ordinary people function as the world changes around them?  How do we deal with drastic changes beyond our control?  It's a disaster novel in which the disaster unfolds slowly and never stops getting worse.

I was once twelve years old.  It's been a long time, but I remember the feelings and the confusion and how it felt like my life had suddenly shifted and there were new concerns and all of a sudden everything was harder.  The ground under my feet had gone from a solid surface to something more treacherous, loose and slippery with unexpected protrusions and depressions.  As the world disasters mount in The Age of Miracles, Hannah is experiencing those small disasters of adolescence.

I wish I could tell you that it all turns out okay.  I wish I could tell you that the Earth's rotation returns to normal or that it even stops slowing down.  I wish I could tell you that life gets easier for these people and that everybody finds a ways to live in harmony with their new reality.  Those things don't happen.  Hannah experiences new love, disappointment, and death.  Life continues and the Earth rotates a bit slower every day.  The life Hannah grows into is filled with uncertainly.  But these things aren't exactly new, are they?  It's all fairly universal.

The Age of Miracles works despite the world-disaster story-line because at it's core the story is universal. We all had an awkward adolescence in our own way and nobody's road to adulthood is without the occasional pothole.  This whole business of the Earth's rotation slowing just gives the story a new angle, a new way to highlight how weird it is to grow up and become someone.

Overall I enjoyed The Age of Miracles.  The writing is tight and the story moves at a nice pace.  The characters are well-drawn and Hannah is a fully realized young person that got in my head and made a nice place for herself.  It's a good book, maybe even a great book for a certain audience.  As I noted at the beginning, since it mixes genres and refuses to be put in a box it's not quite a YA novel, not quite a science fiction novel.  It's a book about the uncertainty of growing up that's uncertain of its genre.  I liked it and I think that if you focus on what it's trying to accomplish, you'll like it too.

Book Source: NetGalley

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