The end of the world as we know it

"The Age of Miracles": by Karen Thompson Walker; Random ($26)

At first glance, the miracles in Karen Thompson Walker's haunting first novel don't seem particularly miraculous. They are the ordinary events of early adolescence, so basic that only later is their value apparent.

A best friend moves away — then comes back. A snow day cancels school, and all the kids go sledding. A quiet, lovely boy with shaggy hair and long eyelashes reveals that he knows you exist.

Ordinarily, such moments fade quickly as life hurtles on. But in the extraordinary, awful world of "The Age of Miracles," these happy fragments emerge starkly. Life is changing. Maybe it's ending.

One Saturday, the world wakes up to discover that the earth's rotation has inexplicably begun to slow. Expectations of time quickly shatter. Days grow long. Nights, too. Nobody knows exactly when to go to school or work or bed. That snow day? It happens in beachside California.

"The Age of Miracles" is a poignant hybrid, a sci-fi/coming of age novel that celebrates human resilience even as it breaks your heart.

Smartly and compassionately executed by Walker, the book is a heartfelt story told in a reverent, elegiac tone. Julia, our observant young narrator, is looking back on the events she describes as she and her parents and friends try to navigate the new world order.

"It's never the disasters you see coming that finally come to pass," she says sagely. "It's the ones you don't expect at all."

Julia could be talking about the end of the world as she knows it or her changing fortunes in sixth grade. That's part of Walker's genius: For Julia — for anyone, really — adjusting to the minefield of adolescence is just as tricky as adjusting to the apocalypse.

Walker gets around the scientific specifics of her fantastic premise by using a young girl to tell the story; Julia only knows what she hears on television and what she can observe. TV news tells her that scientists remain baffled by the phenomenon.

The novel's wondrous momentum rolls on with the insistence of the restless surf that swallows the beachfront homes; you can't stop reading if you try.

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