Thursday, March 19, 2015

"The Age of Miracles" by Karen Thompson Walker

I'm a newcomer to audiobooks. I spend a decent amount of time on the road commuting to work though, averaging about 45 minutes each way, so last week, while NPR was having a seemingly endless on-air fundraiser and every other station was playing a Taylor Swift song, I picked up The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker on audiobook. I can say with great certainty that I'm hooked on books-on-tape, my friends.

The Age of Miracles is a good pick to listen to in a car as it follows a young girl and her family during a time when the world around them is changing. And I literally mean changing. Earth's 24-hour days are gradually growing longer as the planet starts to rotate slower and slower. This means that days can have 20 hours of burning sunlight and 20 hours of freezing, dark skies.  There are power outages, food shortages, radioactive light, strange physical ailments and an overall subdued type of panic.  No one, including the scientists, know what is going on and with everything in flux, it's almost impossible to move forward with real life.

There are really two stories occurring simultaneously in The Age of Miracles. Walker's 11-year old main character, Julia, is navigating her way through school, making and losing friends, falling in love with the boy around the corner and dealing with her parents' marriage. At the same time, the world seems ready to implode. The birds start to die, the weather is extreme and unpredictable, and society is losing its morale compass. These two stories didn't always seem like they were happening at the same time; at points, there were details missing that were really needed to make this a full-bodied, complete story.

Walker is a beautiful writer, with lovely sentences and delicate wording. I found myself so drawn into the book as it was being read to me that a few times, I arrived at my destination and barely remembered the drive at all. And there was one particularly anxious instance when, around dusk, I actually expected nighttime not to arrive, until I reminded myself that the world was only changing in the book.  The Age of Miracles transported me, if only temporarily.

I don't normally read books about catastrophes, or disasters, or sci-fi.  Maybe one of the reasons I enjoyed this novel was because the science is soft.  There are no technical terms or scientific explanations as to why these horrible things are happening to the planet. As the reader, I am just supposed to believe and move on.  And for the most part, I did.

Something that I bothered me a bit, although I admit that I may not have picked up on it if I wasn't listening via audiobook, is that Walker repeats several lines over and over.  The one that sticks with  me is "It still amazes me how little we knew back then."  It's for effect, obviously; this is a mantra that Julia is compelled to repeat as she looks back on how this whole disaster started, and as she looks ahead in extremely uncertain times.  My issue is that by the end of the book, adult Julia doesn't seem to know much more than she did when everything started.  What didn't they know back then that they do know by those last pages at the end?

This is a quiet, rather slow-moving novel about a girl trying to make it through a worldwide catastrophe unscathed.  I think most readers will be drawn in by the apocalyptic aspects, but it was Julia's story that really kept me interested in The Age of Miracles.

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