In A Nutshell
Adolescence or the Apocalypse, it’s hard to say which experience is more traumatic; but The Age of Miracles handles them both with a deft—if somewhat emotionally distant—talent.
The Whole Enchilada
Something about adolescence begs to be compared to the end of the world as we know it. In fact, when it comes to coming-of-age novels they seem to fall into one of two categories: disturbing dystopian post-apocalyptic, or sentimentally earnest and understanding true-to-life renditions. It’s easy to understand why this is; after all, it’s hard to look back on adolescence with any kind of objectivity. What with the raging hormones, the parade of first discoveries, the fear of/struggle for independence, and the cutthroat social wrangling, comparing adolescence to an apocalypse actually seems generous.
In The Age of Miracles Karen Thompson Walker manages to make both adolescence and the apocalypse seem equally heartbreaking and mundane—quite a feat, if you think about it, considering that neither adolescence nor an apocalypse are at all mundane. The book begins with the announcement that the rotation of the earth is slowing, causing increasingly longer days and nights. Julia (our protagonist) is just entering adolescence, with all the usual firsts ahead of her: first bra, first period, first kiss, first heartbreak, first betrayal, and first love. As she takes her first steps into adolescence Julia has to say goodbye to more than just the comforts of childhood; she also says goodbye to 24 hour days, to the sight of birds flying, to grass and trees, to friends and family members, to walking in the sunlight, and eventually to living above-ground altogether. When Julia is through with adolescence there is literally nothing recognizable about her life.
While I enjoyed reading this interesting commentary on the world-altering changes that come with growing up, I was never able to fully lose myself in the book the way I like to. This was partially because our protagonist is unusually emotionally distant for someone going through the most extreme highs and lows we experience during the course of a lifetime; and partially because the narrator is an older Julia who often mysteriously alludes to future events without necessarily clearing up her references later. I wonder if this was a narrative device designed to lend certain events or plotlines more weight than they might otherwise have, but if so it came across to this reader as a breach of the “show don’t tell” rule of storytelling. Aside from this small nitpick, however, the book was a charming read, and when I finally read the last page I walked out into the moonless night of my backyard it was with a small twinge of anxiety about the next morning’s sunrise. It will be a while before I take the even flow of days and nights for granted again.
The premise of The Age of Miracles might make many readers think it’s a Sci-Fi/Fantasy novel, but I think it would be misleading to label the book as such. The book is really about a young girl’s coming-of-age, and the narrative fits more closely into the “sentimentally earnest and understanding true-to-life” category than the “disturbing dystopian post-apocalyptic” one. When it comes down to it, Julia is just a girl trying to figure out how to move from childhood to adulthood with grace and honesty. Karen Thompson Walker gives her heroine a sincere and recognizable voice, one to which any young girl will be able to relate, and with which any adult will be able to sympathize.