July 8, 2012

‘The Age of Miracles’: An upended world through a young girl’s eyes

“The Age of Miracles” by Karen Thompson Walker (Random House 272 pages; $26)

“The Age of Miracles” by Karen Thompson Walker (Random House 272 pages; $26)

What do we ask of a good read? Escape, release, characters to believe in, situations that convince us, especially fantastic ones. We must be compelled from one page to the next at a pace that feels just right — not too fast, never slow. Often the good read is cinematic, suggesting the inevitable movie. Karen Thompson Walker has suffused her first novel, “The Age of Miracles,” with these qualities, and if you begin this book, you’ll be loath to set it down until you’ve reached its end.

What, in turn, does the good read ask of us? Surrender.

I surrendered on Page 7. The narrator is a young woman named Julia, who is looking back on her sixth-grade year a decade earlier in the suburbs of Southern California. The Earth’s rotation, we’ve already learned, is suffering from an inexplicable “slowing.” Days will lose their 24-hour reliable neatness and grow into extended periods of sun (with ghastly radiation implications) and equal periods of darkness — long, cold blackouts in which plant life falters and eventually fails. On Page 7 Julia recalls being at home with her father when her mother comes in. “ ‘Turn on the TV right now,’ (my mother) said. She was breathless and sweaty. She left her keys in the teeth of the lock, where they would dangle all day. ‘Something God-awful is happening.’ ”

The mother’s command has a haunting ring. Many of us heard those words 11 years ago. The memory is still pronounced, of course, yet Walker reanimates our collective terror so that we are propelled through this quiet, spooky science fiction by our own heightened cultural anxiety as much as anything else.

Amid environmental devastation and satisfying sci-fi apocalypse, Julia is still a self-absorbed middle-schooler. She recounts her intimate, regular suffering: She has a crush on an elusive boy, her parents’ marriage is under strain, her best friend moves away. She attempts to understand the implications of the new reality, to parse the grown-ups’ behavior.

“How extraordinary it would seem to us eventually that our sun once set as predictably as clockwork. And how miraculous it would soon seem that I was once a happier girl, less lonely and less shy.” Walker never does show that carefree girl. From the first, sober Julia is prone to confusion and loneliness and heavily freighted, precocious observation.

“The Age of Miracles” is equal parts coming-of-age novel and sci-fi adventure, although each feels underserved by Walker’s careful, subdued tone, a gauzy obliqueness meant, perhaps, to reflect the uncertainty of the times, the maddening lack of specific information. Walker is a lovely writer with an unerring ear for hypnotic cadence; but the narrator’s unruffled equilibrium and knee-jerk nostalgia sometimes account for a bland daze. “I should have known by then,” “even then,” “now infamous,” “I still remember” and the like appear so frequently as to become an inescapable trope that leaves the novel muted.

But then again, Walker can pierce the surreal heart of dailiness amid devastation. They sit down to a colorful, happy dinner, a rare moment of ease in the story. But doom is lurking. “For dessert we ate canned pineapples,” Julia tells us. “They were the last pineapples we’d ever eat in our lives.” Bull’s-eye. With perfect and stealthy simplicity, Walker makes us feel the horror.

“The Age of Miracles” reminds us that we never know when everything will change, when a single event will split our understanding of personal history and all history into a Before and an After.

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