“Age of Miracles” Karen Thompson Walker (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

Age of Miracles novel by Karen Thompson Walker

It’s going to be a special book that lives up to that title and “Age of Miracles” looks promising as the earth’s magnetic field weakens so days and nights get longer. Animals that rely on the magnetic north for navigation are the first hint of problems: dying birds and beached whales. Humans start developing “gravity sickness” with vague symptoms of anxiety, depression, fainting and light headedness. To prevent anarchy, governments insist that people keep to “clock time” and continue based on the 24 hour clock even if this means going to work in pitch blackness and sleeping during sunlight. A rebellious faction, the “real timers” break away setting up make-shift camps, insisting that humans will adapt and just need to rise when it’s daylight and sleep when its dark. Where “real-timers” live amongst those following “clock time”, the former become outcasts and suffer stigmatism.

However, “Age of Miracles” is not science fiction and Karen Thompson Walker is not interested in the science or presenting a dystopia Instead readers follow Julia’s story.

Julia is a fairly typical eleven-year-old, middle class, high school student in California living with both parents and with a crush on the skater boy. She goes to school, comes home, plays soccer and hangs out with her best friend. Typically of a pre-teen, the rest of the world doesn’t exist. So Karen Thompson Walker’s insistence on following Julia’s story and allowing no one else to narrate restricts the novel’s development. When Julia’s best friend Hanna is moves away, we don’t get Hanna’s story; when Chip, who keeps an eye on Julia’s grandfather, moves to a “real timer” settlement, we don’t get his story; when Julia and the skater boy, who’s lost his mother to cancer, go down to the beach to see the beached whales we don’t get any sense of his bereavement. In fact we don’t even learn what types of whales are beached, just whales: large, indistinct, colourless, odourless mammals apparently dying. Even Hanna’s removal seems to have little effect on Julia’s life. She still gets up, goes to school, plays soccer (albeit less enthusiastically) and hangs out with another girl or the object of her crush. To develop interest, Julia develops a habit of foreshadowing, commenting, “little did we know it was the last time we’d ever see her.” Trouble is, readers know Julia’s live won’t change as a result so don’t care.

The consequence is that “Age of Miracles” becomes a coming of age novel with an interesting but under-developed premise. Towards the end Karen Thompson Walker skips from Julia turning twelve to Julia at twenty-three, a young woman with an uncertain future as the author herself has become bored of her own heroine’s story, which has become too typical and lacking in tension, conflict and drama that might have made it interesting. “Age of Miracles” is readable but lacking in character.

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