The Age of Miracles

Thompson Walker has set up a very convincing dystopian thriller with her first novel. She’s landed, quite accurately, on the idea that our destruction probably won’t be one of the many factors we are already aware of, but something completely unexpected.

This feeling of unpreparedness, alongside a distinct lack of understanding (no explanation is ever found for the earth’s slowing), and thus control, adds up to a pretty frightening future. The earth turning is something we do not question. This makes it perfect for Thompson Walker to play with – if this, then what else could we be wrong about?

It also helps that the threat itself is barely visible – like the best horror movies are the ones where you never come face to face with the villain, scary phenomena are scariest when they are unknowable and intangible.

Written from the point of view of an eleven-year old girl, the story is more self-absorbed than traditional sci-fi novels – and the book reads more about coming of age and the loneliness of adolescence, the quiet breakdowns of everyday life that would have happened with or without the earth’s slowing.

Sometimes Thompson Walker hints at the darker implications of longer days and nights, but these only fit into a kind of background of unease. For Julia, the pain of your best friend icing you out, bus-stop bullying and first crushes almost eclipse the strangeness of her new reality.

It’s a lovely book, despite it’s horrifying theme. The Age of Miracles manages to portray normal life in an extraordinary time.

Home sweet home

There’s a lot of truth in the idea that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone (or in this case, an ocean away).

England is like a new place and it’s hard to understand why no one else is giggling at all the details. My town looks so English. Our currency is beautiful. The weight of a pound coin in my hand, the accent, the familiar orange of a train ticket; I want to bundle all these up and never forget them.

I know where everything is here, I turn down streets and I know what I will find. There’s something immensely comforting in that.

And of course seeing the people I love again is best of all.

When I was asked what was most different about being home, it’s that the sky is free of towering buildings, and the people walk slowly.  Supermarkets delight me, and pedestrians, and roads that are exactly the right size.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses coming back; I had pretty horrible jetlag and I still wake up not knowing exactly where I am. But I’m very glad to be home.

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Six months of travel wisdom

OR: Things I learnt. Some of these are really trivial, others are more meaningful. I am proud of every single one.

How to choose and book Greyhound tickets really efficiently.

How to keep track of my possessions

To be happy in my own company, at a restaurant,  bar, or show

To be (more) patient

To contort my body into the prime comfort position on bus and train seats

To not (completely) lose it when things go wrong

To spot a postbox at twenty yards

To determine someone’s level of craziness (and potential danger) within ten minutes

To act accordingly to maximise my own safety

What kind of people I want to spend my time with (not you, hostel drunkard!)

To speak and understand basic Spanish

To haggle (just about)

To take better photographs

To describe in words some of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen

To make good meals out of limited ingredients, sparse kitchens and the deadline of checkout to keep in mind

To complain less (or at the very least to realise that my complaints will be ridiculous to someone else) NB. Perhaps not having someone always there to complain to also helped.

To navigate my way around new cities and use local transport

To calculate currency conversions in my head

To budget effectively

To ask for what I want

To do what I want, when I’m worried about what other people think

To challenge my beliefs

To try new things; recklessly and relentlessly

To curb my materialism and think about the things I genuinely want to own

To read amazing books that inspire me to think in literature

To not get burnt!! Yes, it only took 24 years.

To realise what sort of place I want to live in

To meet people who completely change my mind

To shed a lot of inhibitions and concerns about privacy

To pee off the side of a boat,  behind a rock in the desert, or in doorless cubicles.

To sleep on buses, trains, floors, hammocks, a boat, airport and in tents and a luggage rack.

To carry everything that I need

To throw away the things I don’t

To treasure the parts of home I respect the most

Changing my mind

Before I left for my six month trip, I was incredibly excited. I’d been reading a lot of travel blogs and wondered whether I, too, was cut out for a nomadic lifestyle; moving from place to place for long periods of time. Spoiler: I’m not.

I had (and still have) dozens of niche career ideas that lit me up. See: sailor, trapeze artist, adventure sports guide, etc. Many of the things I thought that I could do or be have been discounted. They’re just not right for me. It’s been interesting to discover this, and luckily I have enough of these ideas that some getting rejected doesn’t leave me bereft of identity.

Spending time travelling alone made it much easier to see the things I really value, believe in and enjoy – even and especially when this involved changing my mind.

But given that my optimum length for a trip like this is actually more like four or five months, tops, why didn’t I just come home early?

Honestly, I really only considered it once. Even though the last few weeks were hard, I felt like I learnt more accurately that six months, for me, was too long. If I’d have left after 4, I might have always wondered. Plus there really weren’t any of the places I decided to visit that I would have been happy missing. I wanted to be excited about returning home, rather than sad that this adventure was ending, and I am.

On balance, my missing home wasn’t going to detract from the experience as much as leaving would. The reason the trip was so long in the first place was because there was so much I wanted to see. And I’m completely glad I got to see it.

As wonderful as travelling has been, I now know that I absolutely couldn’t do this indefinitely. Homesickness, which still seems to me childish, nevertheless means that to be happy, I want to stick in one place. At least for a few years at a time.

I also firmly reject the idea that to travel (whether short term 8f long term) makes you better (any changes it brings are due to trying and to enjoying different perspectives, rather than travel in and of itself). While I really enjoy it (at least for sub-6 month stints), I appreciate that it’s not for everyone. This came about from meeting a rather snobbish professional travel blogger and realising to my distress that I used to share some of his views.

That’s what it’s all about though, I think, trying enough things to actually know what you think. To allow yourself to change your mind.

David Mitchell and metalepsis

I just read a wonderful interview in New York Magazine (which you can read here) about David Mitchell’s new book, The Bone Clocks.

Aside from sounding like a very good book in its own right, The Bone Clocks purportedly brings several characters from his previous books into the story.

This is known as metalepsis (a delicious word) and something I am a huge fan of.

I like connected stories. Remembering old characters, and seeing them in new situations, is fascinating and valuable. The idea that the barriers of separate novels are permeable is beautiful, and makes me think about what else in life we discount because of the many boxes and categories we create to keep things apart.

Using characters and beliefs this way encourages the reader to stay in the story long after the ending has been passed. The final page is just another boundary, after all, and the best books should continue to make you think. Should make you try to weave their perspective into your own reality and see how it changes as a result.

Reading the Dark Tower series (or any Stephen King, probably) is also a good example of this. Characters move between books with ease – and I’m pretty sure I’ve just read the nugget of the idea that turned into 11/22/63, one of his newest novels, all in a conversation somewhere in Calla Bryn Sturgis.

So here’s to metalepsis, and books which go beyond their traditional limits – I’d love to create something that far reaching and interconnected one day.