June 21 was the longest day of this year, though actually it took the same 24 hours as all the rest. But what if that weren’t the case? What if one day we kept on turning into hour 25 and beyond? In The Age of Miracles, debut novelist Karen Thompson Walker imagines a world in which the Earth’s rotation slows and the days begin to lengthen, by minutes at first, then by many hours. Some panic, others form a stiff-upper-lip resolve: “We’d been asked by the government to carry on as usual. … Go to work, spend money, leave your cash in the banks.” But little by little, everything changes. Baseballs don’t fly properly and birds drop dead from the sky. Without birds, there are more bugs. Temperatures fluctuate. Crops die.
And yet the age of miracles of the title refers only in part to this magical and macabre new world order. The age of miracles, as narrated by an 11-year-old Californian named Julia, is middle school. As the planet enters a new age, Julia is coming of age, and for her the daily considerations of popularity, first crushes and training bras are as weighty as the health implications of an altered gravitational pull.
Walker’s novel about the future held echoes of the past when the rights sold at auction for a seven-figure sum – an advance thought to be a relic of a bygone, pre-recession publishing era. The Age of Miracles feels like a safe investment, though: Walker’s voice is fresh and assured, she has a great backstory (she wrote the novel in the mornings before heading to work as an editor at Simon & Schuster), and her idea and execution have good company among previous literary and commercial smashes.
With its adolescent female narrator, the book is reminiscent of The Lovely Bones. As speculative fiction, it calls to mind Margaret Atwood and Colson Whitehead. On levels both basic and profound, this is a novel about time, as was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Julia is growing up as those around her are growing old, and as the extra time in a day begins to affect the health of plants, animals and people, she observes the gutter of grey hair along her mother’s parting, the flourishing bald spot on her father’s crown, the papery fragility of her grandfather’s skin.
When there is no reversal to “the slowing,” the government decides to enforce the 24-hour clock regardless. This results in “white nights” and “dark days,” and robust sales of sunlamps and blackout blinds. A passive rebellion begins. “Real-timers” throw out their clocks and return to their circadian rhythms, forming communes in the desert. But “the real-timers made us uncomfortable,” Julia tells us. “They were a threat to the social order.” Humankind ineffectually applies old-world order to new-world chaos, and in this The Age of Miracles conjures José Saramago as well.
At times the consequences of “the slowing,” vibrantly and realistically imagined though they are, can read too much like a catalogue, and the narrator’s refrain (Julia is looking back on her adolescence 12 years hence) of “I learned later …” “We understood later …” “Only later would we recognize …” is repetitious. But these are minor quibbles about what is otherwise a tightly wrought feat of the imagination. The reader is required to suspend disbelief, it’s true, but enough of Walker’s slowed-down world is rooted in reality that it seems possible all this could actually happen, which makes it all the more captivating. Touching and harrowing, but above all magical, The Age of Miracles is an impressive debut. And there can be no better time to experience it than during the long (but reassuringly shortening) days of summer.
Becky Toyne is a frequent contributor to CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto.