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When time slows down
In the 1954 Ray Bradbury story All Summer in a Day, Earthlings who have colonized Venus see the Sun shine only once every seven years, and then only for a couple of hours: The rest of the time it rains, and a little girl, who has recently arrived from Earth, is mocked by her schoolmates for describing her memories of what the Sun looked like from home.
This story is referred to in Karen Thompson Walker's much anticipated first novel, The Age of Miracles, which reads as if it had been inspired by Bradbury's classic tale and sprinkled with some extra Twilight Zone magic dust. The premise of Walker's novel is this: The rotation of the Earth has begun to slow, and days and nights are growing longer and longer. All the scheduled rituals of daily life are disrupted.
More ominously, as days and nights elongate, people start getting sick and acting out. Crops begin to fail, the oceans rise and flood waterfront homes, and food and water are hoarded. There is talk about the end of the world, and the possibility of emigrating to space or another planet.
The Age of Miracles has made headlines for reportedly earning its firsttime author a seven-figure deal. What sets the story apart from more run-ofthe-mill high-concept novels is Walker's decision to recount the unfolding catastrophe from the perspective of Julia, who is on the verge of turning 12. Her voice turns what might have been just a clever mash-up of disaster epic with sensitive young-adult, coming-of-age story into a genuinely moving tale that mixes the real and surreal, the ordinary and the extraordinary with impressive fluency and flair.
Walker has an instinctive feel for narrative architecture, creating a story, in lapidary prose, that moves ahead with a sense of both the inevitable and the unexpected. She conjures the suburban Southern California world where Julia has grown up with a native's understanding of its rhythms, rituals and weather.
And while the characters may initially seem like stock figures from youngadult fiction, Walker maps their inner lives with such sure-footedness that they become as recognizable to us as people we've grown up with or watched for years on television: Julia, a quiet, observant girl, who has a terrible crush on Seth, a cute boy who may turn out to be her first real love;her mother, a former actress, given to hyperbole and dramatic gestures, who finds all her worst fears coming true;her father, a practicalminded doctor, who's grown increasingly impatient with his wife's histrionics;and her grandfather, a would-be survivalist, who wants to teach Julia how to shoot a gun.
As "the slowing" begins, Julia says she remembers feeling "not fear but a thrill" - "a sudden sparkle amid the ordinary, the shimmer of the unexpected thing. " Soccer practice is forgotten, television is carpeted with news reports, and her cats start behaving oddly. Then it becomes clear to her that this is not something temporary but a species-threatening development. Walker never explains the science of "the slowing, " but she does a credible job of charting the avalanche of consequences. To preserve order the government asks people to remain on the 24-hour clock, even though that would mean falling out of sync with the Sun: Not everyone goes along with the plan, and soon there are colonies of "real-timers, " who insist on trying to change their own circadian rhythms.
"The slowing" is, in some respects, a simple metaphor for the precariousness of daily life and the contingencies of the modern world.
The Age of Miracles is not without its flaws. Such lapses, however, should not distract attention from this precocious debut - they certainly will not stop this novel from becoming one of this summer's hot literary reads.
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