The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker, Simon & Schuster, RRP£14.99, 384 pages
Coming-of-age novels are commonplace. Novels where the end of the world arrives at the same time as adulthood are altogether rarer, and risk poignancy overload.
As if to shield us from too much misery, the doomsday set-up in The Age of Miracles, the debut novel from US author Karen Thompson Walker, is a slow burner. “It was, at the beginning, a quite invisible catastrophe.” It’s California, about 10 years into the future (although it could be set in the present day – everything seems familiar). Julia is an only child with a prosperous, happy home life. “I was eleven years old in the suburbs. My best friend was standing beside me. I could not spot a single object out of place or amiss.”
Then comes what will be known as “the slowing”. The days get longer, as the earth’s rotation slows. The government orders everyone to obey 24-hour “clock time” regardless of whether it is day or night outside. (Forty hours of day might be followed by 20 hours of night.) Thompson Walker constructs a great subplot involving refusenik “real-timers” who follow the (un)natural patterns of day and night and are driven out of society to a desert hideaway, Circadia.
It’s all highly plausible: “The real catastrophes are always different – unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.” Because the book is related by the young adult Julia, we know she survives.
That doesn’t, somehow, diminish the bleakness of the environmental destruction (all birds and trees die, crops can only grow in greenhouses) or the clarity of Thompson Walker’s insight into the awkward, amazing world of the almost-teen.
“This was middle school, the age of miracles, when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove.”
As the world spins out of control, so does Julia’s safe and happy life. She finds herself picked on and bullied. “I could feel the eyes of the other kids on my face, attracted to cruelty like flies to meat.” Her parents’ marriage is in trouble. Everything really can be blamed on the slowing.
This book got extraordinary pre-publication buzz (UK rights alone sold for £500,000). Yet what sets Thompson Walker apart from other “coming of agers”, doomy or otherwise, is the very opposite of hyperbole – a sparse, compelling writing style offers us Julia’s understated child’s-eye view of her own tragedy, and that of humanity. “For dessert we ate canned pineapples. They were the last pineapples we’d ever eat in our lives.”
The author was an editor at Simon & Schuster before she became a full-time novelist. It shows. She has, perhaps, taken her revenge on the overwritten, verbose proofs that once cluttered her in-tray by producing this counter-work of simple, affecting efficacy.