THE AGE OF MIRACLES, by Karen Thompson Walker. Random House, 272 pp., $26.
'I don't try to describe the future," the late Ray Bradbury was fond of saying. "I try to prevent it." Karen Thompson Walker appears to know exactly what he means in her elegiac, moving first novel, "The Age of Miracles," a coming-of-age story set during what is probably the end of the world. Julia, an 11-year-old girl (who turns 12 over the course of the book), is trying to dodge the incoming hardships of adulthood like every child; the novel's adult characters are coping with "the slowing," an inexorable decline in the speed of the Earth's rotation.
"The slowing" causes all kinds of trouble, obviously: The tides freak out, new faultlines appear in the middle of previously stable continents, the Earth's magnetic field goes nuts, the sun and the moon no longer mark the passage of days.
With the heavenly bodies on the fritz, Bradbury's writing is the novel's clearest lodestar: Walker incorporates his story "All Summer in a Day" into the narrative (Julia reads it for school), but there's also a delicacy of tone here that's similar to Bradbury's own.
Through Julia's narration, Walker deftly communicates how unimportant huge, literally earthshaking events can seem when you're faced with problems such as boys and estranged best friends. The imminent destruction of life as we know it intrudes on Julia's life in the smallest of ways. "The length of a day on earth has increased by ninety minutes in two days," a math teacher writes on the blackboard. "Assuming a steady rate of increase, how long would a day on earth be two days from now? What about three days from now? A week?" This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but a word problem.
Obviously, the end of the world is a pretty solid metaphor for adolescence. One of the most effective subplots in a book teeming with them is the dissolution of Julia's parents' marriage. The cracks appear small at first, but part of her journey into adulthood is the realization (never stated) that her mother, the disciplinarian, is not always wrong, and her father, the caretaker, is not always right. "The early-morning clock hours are still known colloquially (if increasingly mysteriously) as the crack of dawn," Julia recalls. "Similarly, even as they grew apart, my parents never stopped calling each other sweetheart."
Given the book's melancholy subject matter, it's a wonder how fast the thing goes by when you're reading it -- faster when Walker is tracking the reversals in fortune among Julia's middle-school classmates (will the dreamy Seth Moreno ever notice our heroine? Should I feel sorry for the single mom's slutty daughter or not?), slower during the narrator's musings on how life has changed.
"The Age of Miracles" isn't perfect -- it closes with some unnecessary flourishes and a longer peek into the future than feels necessary. Walker is at her best when she's dispassionately itemizing the little things that are vanishing from Julia's life: days in the sun, the taste of fresh fruit, faith in her father, friendships. But the book, even with its too-literal coda, offers something even better than nostalgia: hope.