Karen Thompson Walker's debut, The Age of Miracles, is a literary novel with the heart of a science fiction novel. It's the story of a suburban California family with its painfully typical problems: The daughter, Julia, feels left out at school. Her parents' relationship is strained. People in her neighborhood are unhappy. And then, suddenly, something out of everyone's control happens: The Earth starts slowing down.
It's barely noticeable at first. Days stretch to 26 hours, and then they slowly get longer, stretching to 15 hours of night, and then 17 hours, and then 24 hours of night. Gravity gets more powerful. Birds start disappearing. Plants begin to die. Thompson Walker has clearly done her research—I imagine her sitting at her desk, writing, then sitting bolt upright, picking up the phone and saying to the scientist on the other end, "But what would happen to the ozone layer?" It's a slow-motion disaster movie, stretching across days and weeks.
But the great thing is that Thompson Walker keeps her focus directly on Julia and her family. We see everything happening around them, but we see it through their eyes. Predictably, the Mormons react to the slowness in a weird, Mormon way, and Julia's Mormon friend from school suddenly disappears. The first excitement of gaining a half an hour of daylight in a single day eventually fades into normalcy. We learn how grass, and libertarians, and house cats respond to the changes. And the characters are put through tremendous internal pressure:
Studies soon documented an increase in impulsiveness during the long daylight periods. It had something to do with serotonin; we were all a little crazed. Online gambling increased steadily throughout every stretch of daylight, and there is some evidence that major stock trades were made more often on light days than on dark ones. Rates of murder and other violent crimes also spiked while the sun was in our hemisphere—we discovered very quickly the dangers of the white nights.
This is a fascinating, highly readable novel. Miracles suffers occasionally from overwriting, and the structure of the book—it's told in past tense, in first person, by Julia, so there are occasionally some awkward "as you already know if you're reading this" moments that break the fictional spell for a sentence or two—but it's so ambitious, you can't hold a grudge against minor mistakes like that. Thompson Walker reads today at the Beacon Hill Branch of Seattle Public Library at 4 pm. It's free; if you're interested, you should go and listen to her read from the book. I bet she'll draw you in. This is the kind of story you'll lose sleep over.