Earth is in peril - but must literature be as well?
FICTION: The Age of Miracles By Karen Thompson Walker Simon & Schuster, 269pp. £12
THE AGE OF MIRACLES is a novel set in California in the immediate future. The narrator is 23-year-old Julia, and the story she tells concerns the end of her childhood, around her 12th birthday.
At the novel’s start, as the adult Julia explains, the child Julia, who has no siblings, is living the familiar life of a prosperous middleclass American child when, without explanation, Earth’s diurnal rotation starts to slow, first by seconds, then by minutes and finally by hours. Julia’s physiology and psyche are indifferent to “the slowing”, so, as gravity increases, the seasons end, all the whales and birds die and agricultural production collapses, she goes on regardless – and this dual story, the planet’s and hers, is the story we’re given.
The world’s story is partial, however; Julia doesn’t really pay attention to what’s happening except as it affects her. This in turn means her science is patchy and her account of the collapse of the world’s ecosystem is incomplete – but I didn’t mind this because that’s exactly what I’d expect: cusp adolescents are self-centred. This use of the unreliable narrator is ingenious.
There are other things to enjoy as well: the language, for instance, is simple and spare, but unlike the language of, say, Hemingway, which was intended to shock, awe and impress, Karen Thompson Walker’s is intended to deflect attention; it is an expression of her modesty. The novel’s structure and the control she exercises over her material are similarly unostentatious. There are no tricks, no attention-seeking displays and no tampering with chronology or withholding of key facts for dramatic effect or to excite appetite (with a single exception, which comes at the end and is therefore completely excusable). On the contrary, there is just quiet, steadfast storytelling throughout, as well as perfect clarity about where we are in time and whether we’re with Julia the adult or Julia the child.
Simon & Schuster urges readers to take time out of their busy lives to read the book because it’s “one of those rare novels that make us consider the way we look at the world”, as well as being “the wake-up call that we all need”.
As a warning to mankind, this novel may or not work, though I doubt it will have any effect on the greed that’s the primary motor for our degradation of the environment. As for the argument that this work can refashion reader perceptions, I feel much more competent to pronounce. There are books that can cause a reader to re-evaluate, but The Age of Miracles isn’t one of them: yes, it’s a good book, literate and well made, but I don’t believe it’s going to achieve what the publisher claims. It’s simply not great enough.