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The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

There's something satisfying about a story set against an apocalyptic backdrop. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a stunner, and Donnie Darko also weaves such a setting and storyline. There is a deep connection between coming of age stories and end of the world stories, a grand anthropomorphism where massive personal changes are writ large in massive global changes. Hitting puberty, that transition to adulthood and Bildungsroman, is particularly powerful and seems to deserve a good background cataclysm. The larger apocalypse gives the personal one a certain sharpness and momentum, and the questions of survival become more worrisome as the plot continues.

The Age of Miracles  does all of this quite brilliantly. Like The Road  (and unlike Hitchcock's denouement to Psycho , where it all has to be explained), there is an unexplained earthly cataclysm; for Walker's novel, it's a slowing of the earth's rotation. On one level, this returns us to a premodern lifestyle, and there are the real-timers who want to live on this new schedule of 72-hour days and 72-hour nights. Most of the rest of the world keeps the same 24-hour clock and schedule, despite the fact that they are now out of sync with sunlight and darkness. On another level, the changing of the length of the days and nights is not just premodern but inhuman, as we simply cannot exist on a 72-hour cycle, and neither can our planet (the nights get cold, and plants die out). It hearkens to the Jewish and Christian notion that the world was created with 24-hour days and nights, with these specific parameters, and we were made to fit in these parameters. Without them, people start to go crazy and the earth starts to die.

The Age of Miracles  points, in a very science fiction sort of way, to the assumptions we make as human beings. It's a bit of a Twilight Zone  episode: what would happen if the earth started slowing down its rotation while still orbiting the sun? We assume that the sun will rise tomorrow, and the day after that, but what if it doesn't? We see society disintegrate once this assumption is removed.

But this apocalyptic backdrop is not what The Age of Miracles is really about. What concerns the novel and the reader is Julia's moving into adolescence and eventually adulthood. For her, these terrible global events are happening as she is turning 12 years old, with the inexplicable, petty hurts of those years. She is baffled by a friend who rejects her, her own loneliness, her physical immaturity, the aging of her parents and their marital problems, and the beginning of her first love.

Julia's personal world is changing everywhere, just as it is globally. It's this tightness to the novel, this inner and outer sense of the plotting, that makes it so moving. Walker's descriptions of this age compelling and true to life, and it took me back to my own bafflements in middle school. We are left with the poignancy of this odd age in human existence, its small heartbreaks and its big ones, along with great affection for young Julia, and a hope for her future along with the rest of the world.

Plato's Genre

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