Is it possible for a novel to be both an apocalyptic and a coming of age story? Or would that be a literary oxymoron, an impossible tale with a shelf life as unknown as that of planet earth? You can read Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel, The Age of Miracles as either one, but the bottom line is, “You’ve got to read this book.”
Science tells us that the earth will not exist forever, and this fact is probably not at the top of every reader’s list of favorite subjects. What makes The Age of Miracles a bit of a literary miracle itself is the author’s ability to weave together two disparate stories: one, an emotional recounting of an eleven year-old girl’s first steps into her future as a woman; and two, an almost journalistic telling of how the earth will cease to be a viable planet as we know it. It is no longer turning as it used to and eventually it will no longer support any living thing.
Julia’s narrative voice is not that of an eleven-year-old; rather, it’s the voice of a young woman looking back at the way it was, the remembrance of a past with only a limited future: “We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.” She speaks of the news broadcast when a scientist warns of the earth’s slowing: “We have no way of knowing if this trend will continue, . . . .But we suspect it will continue.”
Julia is the beloved daughter of a doting mother and father and an aging grandfather. Grammar school is coming to a close and her thoughts are already racing ahead to her first year of junior high, with the hope she will outgrow her shyness and her inability to fit in with the popular crowd. She is a California girl grown used to earthquakes, but when she and her friend Hannah “finally understood what was happening,” they run outside to see if they can see any change. They can smell the ocean air, hear and see the eucalyptus trees “fluttering” in the wind, but “could spot not a single object out-of-place or amiss.”
The reality of a world growing darker, losing its gravity, forcing itself into missteps never before taken by nature, does not, however, slow the onset of puberty, the betrayal of girlfriends, the bullying teasing from boys, even a new and difficult awareness of her parents with their own distinct lives. It brings Seth into Julia’s life, a classmate with whom she can share that shy and tentative journey, while “Catastrophe, too, like bad weather, was provoking in all of us an uneasy excitement and verve.”
The author is subtly brilliant in her story of changes, both physical and emotional. The depth of her insights and observations will keep the reader’s own youth as close at hand as today’s headlines of global warming. Karen Thompson Walker has written a most disturbingly beautiful novel. – Sunny Solomon