Hardcover, 320 pagesPublished January 15th 2019 by Random House
In an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a freshman girl stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics who carry her away, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. Then a second girl falls asleep, and then another, and panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. As the number of cases multiplies, classes are canceled, and stores begin to run out of supplies. A quarantine is established. The National Guard is summoned.
Mei, an outsider in the cliquish hierarchy of dorm life, finds herself thrust together with an eccentric, idealistic classmate. Two visiting professors try to protect their newborn baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. A father succumbs to the illness, leaving his daughters to fend for themselves. And at the hospital, a new life grows within a college girl, unbeknownst to her—even as she sleeps. A psychiatrist, summoned from Los Angeles, attempts to make sense of the illness as it spreads through the town. Those infected are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, more than has ever been recorded. They are dreaming heightened dreams—but of what?
The eyelids flutter. The breathing is irregular. The muscle tone is visibly slack. With each new patient…these signs that the sleepers might be dreaming.
Karen Thompson Walker’s sophomore novel, The Dreamers, took me by storm. Excuse the cliché, but it swept me up inside of an imaginative world that was close enough to reality as to not be science fiction but close enough to an altered reality as to border dystopia. The sickness sweeping the town took on a life of its own—the true antagonist in this novel. It left behind an eerie quiet upon this Southern California town, which Walker punctuated beautifully— disconcertingly: an explosion here, a dog still on its leash wandering the silent neighborhood there, a man sleepwalking in the middle of the road who may or may not meet his end with a vehicle. I wasn’t sure that I would fall in love with this novel from the start. Yet, Walker’s un-embellished method of storytelling grew on me gradually but commendably in such a way that I hadn’t realized I’d fallen for this book until I was already hopelessly at its mercy, drawn into its altered reality completely.
Mei is a freshman in college when the sleeping sickness chokes the small town she lives in. She’s suffering from typical first-year introvert blues: not fitting in, being generally ignored by the entire student body around her. Until. It starts in her dorm, on her floor, with the pretty, lip gloss smacking girls and popular boys falling prey to sleep one by one. When a panic stirs and the students are quarantined, it’s not long before they find a way to break out of captivity and scatter, running in all directions, back into the world—carrying the sleeping sickness sweeping across the town with them.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Dreamers. It is a thoughtful read featuring a cast of odd-balls. The social outcasts and unconventionalists reign supreme within these pages, offering the reader an inside glimpse into a young couple’s broken marriage, a motherless household of doomsday preppers, and one man’s sorrow at the loss of his partner.
I will say that I wish the book had gone further, pushed the bounds just a tad more. That is both a compliment and a critique simultaneously, the former in that I wanted to read more about these characters, and the latter in that I wish Walker had explored this avenue she started to veer on toward the end: an avenue lined in nightmares and premonitions.
“Like just now,” he says. “When you came into the kitchen, I had the sensation that you were standing beside me, but that was before you walked in.” It’s like everything’s out of order, he says, like there’s something wrong with the sequence, as if the future were coming before the past.
I wonder where this path could have led us, what wondrous views we could have seen from that perch. Alas, Walker took us to the edge of that cliff—far enough so that we could see what could be—but never pushed us into the arms of what was below. Some would praise her for such restraint, while others would yearn to place their feet upon that path less taken. I, myself, am on the fence, one foot hanging midair of what could have been, the other solidly placed in the reality of what the novel offered.
The Dreamers moved me. I thought about this book when I was away from it and turned the pages swiftly, hungrily, when I was in its company. I recommend this novel to lovers of fiction writing, particularly dystopian fiction or narratives featuring altered realities and small towns in a panic. I liked the compactness of the book, the fact that every word, every chapter, had its place in moving the narrative forward. But, I would not have objected to being taken further into this new dimension that was presented but only tepidly explored. All in all, Karen Thompson Walker and The Dreamers earned a solid 4.5 stars rounded up to 5.
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You can learn more about Karen Thompson Walker and her book tour at http://karenthompsonwalker.com