Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Book Review The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles
Karen Thompson Walker
Trade Paperback ARC
288 pages
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: June 26, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0812992977


     The Age of Miracles, the debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker, is, in my opinion, a significant and important contribution to literature. And, not because of the publishing tug-of-war that preceded it, but in spite of it. Before its publication the book received a lot of attention when a bidding war for the rights broke out between rival publishing houses. However, the details concerning the purchase are not what makes it such an important work of fiction. For me, it’s the extraordinary story itself that steals the show. Not only does the author possess an amazing writing style, a unique flair for descriptive imagery, and a faultless command of the language but she tells a gripping and engrossing story of world-changing events as they occur. Ms. Walker is a talented writer with a gift for creating succinct and evocative prose, a skill that benefits both the story and every reader fortunate enough to encounter it. What impresses me the most is the masterfully concise and poetic phrasing which, coming from a first-time author, I find remarkably mature. (While I was reading this book I caught myself time and again wishing I could write like that.)

     Some might call The Age of Miracles a coming-of-age story and on the surface they’d be right. It is, in fact, the most melancholy teenage transformation I think I’ve ever read. That’s because Ms. Walker’s prose mainlines us straight into the head and heart of the teenage protagonist and we experience and empathize with every agonizing moment of her transition. But this is not a simple “becoming” tale. It is an evolution of age under complex and exceedingly trying times. The theme of maturation is intensified and made more poignant when it occurs during an epic natural disaster. Unusual changes in the environment, a sense of future survival, the unraveling of civilization, and a family in rift serve to compound the main character’s transition into adulthood. But the most compelling theme is that of the subtle changes that affect mankind as the length of days and nights become distorted as a result of that disaster.

     A powerful earthquake has slightly shifted the earth off its axis causing the rotation of the planet to slow. On the surface, this is not the apocalyptic event it might seem. At first, things appear fairly normal. But scientists have discovered that the world clock is now six minutes longer then it was yesterday. A few days later it is 12 minutes longer, then 24, until an exponential and unpredictable change in the length of each day occurs. Then birds begin to die, plants shrivel, and trees dry-rot and, when the world’s food sources become jeopardized by the climate shift, a world-wide panic builds. What truly affects the population though is not the massive earthquake or the dwindling growing season but the physical and psychological effects of the increasing length of days without night and nights without day. Forty-eight hours elapse without night. Darkness returns and lasts sixty hours. It becomes too dangerous to go outdoors during the daylight hours and those that do suffer quickly from radiation burns. Through all the hardships and panic facing the planet one teenage girl must learn to find her place in a world on the brink of destruction. The Age of Miracles then is not only a coming-of-age story in the midst of calamity but a superb example of the subtle effects a natural disaster can have on the human psyche.

     The Age of Miracles also contains two very distinct levels of pacing which I believe merit mentioning. First, the changes each character experiences and those that physically occur to the planet begin slowly, building exponentially as the story develops. While the alterations are significant they occur at a naturally fluid pace within the narrative. Though they depict unusual circumstances the catastrophic events are so well-written that they “feel” real, which, in afterthought, is alarming in its plausibility. The second level of pacing involves the reading flow of the book. The Age of Miracles is a fast read. So much so that I finished it cover to cover in one sitting. In my experience, a quick read usually means one of four things. Either the author has an exceptional grasp of the language; or clearly and concisely conveys every concept, character, and setting; or wastes no words; or has written such an engrossing and compelling story that the reader just can’t put it down. In rare instances a story will meet two of my “fast-read” criteria. The Age of Miracles qualifies for all four.

     This is definitely one of my favorite reads of the year and I give it high marks in every category. It contains evolving settings, a unique and creative plot, empathetic and interesting characters, a beautiful mix of cadence and pace, prose that’s both poetic and touching, mastery of language, and an emotional kick you’ll feel down in the depths of your soul. For these, and many other reasons, The Age of Miracles deserves to become a break-out sensation. I, for one, hope that it does and believe that it will.

     If you’re going to read only one book this year – make sure this is the one. (If you’re going to read one-hundred books this year – this is still the one.)

     Recommended for young adult readers, fans of coming-of-age stories, apocalyptic events, strong character portrayals, descriptive and concise language, and those looking to be entertained by a wonderfully written, fast-paced story.

5 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

The Age of Miracles Official Site

The Age of Miracles Video Trailer

The Age of Miracles Amazon Page

The Age of Miracles Publishers Auction Article

1 comment:

Belgie said...

I can honestly say that the book didn't contain a single "clunker". By this I mean that the story just felt true all the way to the end. Walker never sacrifices the pace and point of the story with bids for cheap thrills. The tale of "the slowing" is just that-- slow. With grinding certainty you experience the slowing of the Earth's rotations with the book's protagonist, an adolescent girl. In this way Walker's apocalypse is different than most others I have read (and I grew up in the 1980s, when "end of the world" fear rivaled that of the 1950s and people in my age group consumed as much post-apocalyptic literature as we could get our hands on). To me the feeling of terror and urgency was somehow stronger because of the slower pace of destruction. I felt like it would be a relief if really catastrophic stuff would just happen and get things over with.

I'm not sure what age group this was written for, but it really scared the heck out of me and I'm guessing it would cause no few amount of nightmares in the average kid's head. I also wonder if some of the content wouldn't just go over many younger people's heads.