BOOKS - Earth, and 11-year-old main character, undergo tran
G. WAYNE MILLER
Publication Date: July 22, 2012 Page: G6 Section: FEATURES
"The Age of Miracles,"
By Karen Thompson Walker.
288 pages. $26.
With "The Age of Miracles," we welcome the debut of Karen Thompson Walker, a young novelist whose beautiful language, distinctive voice and uncommon ability to write equally adeptly of loss and love promises a long career of important work.
On its surface - a clever and convincing surface - "The Age of Miracles" chronicles the experiences of 11-year-old Julia and her family and friends during the first months of what comes to be known as "the slowing." In this not-too-distant future, the earth's rotation is inexplicably decelerating, causing lengthening days and nights and unrelenting bio-disasters across the planet. The author gets global warming.
But this is not just another fiery depiction of unfolding apocalypse: The book has been optioned to Hollywood, but don't expect James Cameron or Christopher Nolan to direct. Because beneath the book's dystopian veneer, with its annihilating sun, mass demise of species and mysterious human ailments, Walker gives us a brilliant, small-scale study of the devolution of a Southern California neighborhood as old rhythms of life disintegrate and a new, unbalanced "normal" emerges. Her deft portrayal of this transformation would alone have made "Miracles" a worthy read - but Walker goes one level deeper still, telling a timeless coming-of-age story with fresh, sophisticated power, in part attributable to the striking beauty of her words. Two such stories, actually.
Julia is a shy girl, late to puberty, often alone with her thoughts and fears, an outcast seeking shelter in her room and the school library - and yet gifted with prescience and insight, even if she is still too naive to interpret some of the extraordinary (and ordinary) things she observes (the novel is narrated in first person by Julia looking back several years later, when she is a young adult).
Seth Moreno is the skateboarding, emotionally contained boy (he does his best to hide the agony of his mother's slow death) -- a child who nonetheless is intellectually curious and, in his way, charismatic. How they fall for each in their tumultuous pre-teen world, which survives "the slowing," carries this book to an unforgettable conclusion. I will not reveal the end, but the words "We were here" proved haunting.
Right from the opening page, "The Age of Miracles" brims with exquisitely crafted prose on which rests Julia's emerging personality (a former editor at Simon & Schuster, Walker evidently labors over her every sentence, polishing each as she might a precious heirloom).
"This was middle school," Julia relates, "the age of miracles, the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove. Our first flaws were emerging, but they were being corrected. Blurry vision could be fixed invisibly with the magic of the contact lens. Crooked teeth were pulled straight with braces. Spotty skin could be chemically cleaned. Some girls were turning beautiful. A few boys were growing tall. I knew I still looked like a child."
About a third of the way in, Walker seems to have momentarily lost her touch, with a few errant clichés and repetitions (enough, already, of "radiating"!) -- but these were but occasional, and elegance soon returned. I can imagine the delight when Walker's manuscript reached the desk of the acquiring editor at Random House, and why the publisher paid a reported $1 million for the book and has strongly supported its launch, including a full-page ad in the New York Times Book Review.
I read "The Age of Miracles" in nearly a single sitting: On East Matunuck Beach, on a pristine summer's day. I guess that makes it a perfect beach book.
But do not be fooled: Walker's debut signals the arrival of a major new voice in serious American fiction.
G. Wayne Miller is the author of seven books of non-fiction, a novel and a short-story collection. Visit him at gwaynemiller.com.