Who among us hasn’t wished for more hours in a day? In Karen Thompson Walker’s exciting debut novel, The Age of Miracles, we get exactly that—with dire consequences.
Eleven-year-old Julia is going about the business of growing up in suburban San Diego—piano lessons, sleepovers, a cute skater boy—when the inexplicable occurs: The earth begins to slow on its axis. Days stretch out, growing first by a few minutes, then by hours. Clocks become absurd, gravity goes wonky, the sun becomes a menace, the long nights are cold and terrifying. Society must decide whether to follow “clock time” (the government’s choice) or real time (the anarchic, countercultural approach). Kids wait for the school bus in pitch-dark; people hang blackout curtains to sleep through the bright sun of night. No one knows how long the slowing might last or if it will get worse. Suddenly, adolescence is the least of Julia’s worries.
Speaking by phone from her home in Brooklyn, Walker says the idea for The Age of Miracles came from a newspaper article about the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. The earthquake that preceded the tsunami was so powerful it affected the speed of the earth on its axis, shortening the length of a day by fractions of a second. “I just found that very haunting,” Walker says. “Something we think of as stable and steady—sunset and sunrise.”
She immediately wrote a short story inspired by the notion. Years later she went back to the story and felt there was more to say. She also made a crucial change: to slow the earth, rather than speed it up. A grown-up Julia tells the story, looking back on the profound and rapid changes that happened to the world as she grew up. The result is an enthralling novel with multiple layers of tension between the pace of life and the pace of the story.
To adolescents, it can seem as if the world is moving at a glacial pace, that adulthood and its freedoms are endlessly far away. For Julia, this is literally true. Her days are twice as long as they should be. Nevertheless, she’s still in most ways an ordinary (confused, alienated, hopeful) adolescent, beset by life-changing events and emotional upheaval. Walker’s much buzzed-about novel captures all this with eerie precision. “I often had the feeling in those days that I was being watched,” Julia says in the book, “but I think the sensation was a product of the exact opposite conditions.”
Walker credits the authenticity of Julia’s voice to “the emotional memory” of her teenage years. “It’s just an age that I remember well,” she says. “It’s when you first start noticing things in the adult world, and so much is changing. It’s visceral.”
“Everything in the book is invented,” she adds. “None of it happened to me—but I do remember the feeling. As you grow up, certain friends drift away, and there’s your first love, your first interest.”
To make the science of the book feel equally authentic, Walker says, she had to maintain a balance between imagination and hard facts.
“I did some research but it needed to also come from my imagination,” she says. “So it was a combination of my imagination and real science.”
She filed away details from newspaper articles that were tangentially related to her story—things like how the earth’s magnetic field works, how to grow crops in greenhouses, the effects of radiation. Once she had a completed draft, she summoned the courage to show it to an astrophysicist to make sure nothing she’d written was glaringly implausible. “That was scary,” she says, laughing. “I was relieved by how many of the things I wrote were plausible.”
Her job was made a little easier, she adds, because the story focuses on the lives of the people involved, keeping the science in the background. In fact the science behind what’s happening is often mysterious to the characters; the effects of the slowing only have to be explained to the degree that a very bright, observant 11-year-old narrator would be able to grasp.
Julia is a sharp and funny character, and the story has its share of humor and light. But it’s also a grim look at high-speed ecological disaster, and could easily be read as a warning about the importance of treasuring the planet. Walker says she herself is no doomsayer. But, she adds, “I am drawn to stories that have some sort of threat or danger; it has a way of raising the stakes.”
Walker, who wrote the novel while working as an editor at Simon & Schuster, has since quit her job to focus on writing, something she’d never imagined she would have the opportunity to do. “I didn’t realize how tempting it would be,” she says. “It’s been really unexpected, amazing, but also hard to process.”