My wife and I were in the grocery store when I realized that maybe “The Age of Miracles” was having more of an impact on me than I thought it was. My beloved reached for a couple of cans of pineapple, and a moment from Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel, newly available in paperback, came to me in a flash: “For dessert we ate canned pineapples. They were the last pineapples we’d ever eat in our lives.” There in the grocery store, I felt the full impact of these two sentences.
Walker’s novel is narrated by Julia, who tells the story of the year she took tentative steps into young adulthood. That fraught time happens to coincide with the slowing of the earth’s rotation, an inexplicable phenomenon that lengthens days and nights and inexorably changes the nature of day-to-day life.
Despite its title and its apocalyptic premise, “The Age of Miracles” is in many ways a straightforward coming-of-age story replete with the usual family dramas that shape such tales — the mom is depressed, the dad is not always where he says he’ll be, the grandfather is getting old and eccentric, the young protagonist doesn’t fit in, the object of youthful desire is standoffish. While I was reading the book, I thought Walker perhaps underplayed her hand when it came to the “slowing,” focusing too much on standard fare while withholding the bulk of the drama and action caused directly by the cataclysmic change until the book’s last quarter.
But as those cans of pineapple clattered against the bottom of our shopping cart, I realized that slowness is an essential part of what makes “The Age of Miracles” work. As the earth slows, the changes are gradual, the effects cumulative. This is a story of adapting to changes that can’t be controlled, predicted, undone — or hurried. It’s a story that, by reshaping the concept of time, asks us to consider each precious moment in a new context.
I was slow to appreciate the full power of Walker’s story of slowing. Her patient approach ultimately lends the book much of that power. It just took some canned pineapple for me to recognize it.