Laura Reviews THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker

Everything is heightened in a crisis. The way we interact with people changes. We become fiercely protective of those we love. We act selfishly or selflessly. Fear, grief, and loneliness become sharper, but so do those brief moments of joy, wonder, and connection.

THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker is the long awaited new novel by the author of THE AGE OF MIRACLES. In it, a small California town is taken over by a strange epidemic: People are falling asleep and not waking up. Every day the sleeping sickness spreads, and the book follows an alternating cast of characters as they witness the town falling into disarray.

We open on Mei, a shy freshman whose roommate, it turns out, is patient zero. The floor of her college dorm becomes a quarantine cell, and then later, as the epidemic spreads, the whole town is cut off from the rest of the world.

When describing how she knows that someone is sick and not just asleep, Mei thinks, “This is the kind of knowledge that can never be captured in the results of an experiment or in the lens of a camera, the mind the only instrument subtle enough to register it.” Walker is obsessed with the ways that the human mind processes unexplainable phenomena, and how different people react in a crisis. The novel jumps between different point of view characters, from a doctor enlisted to study the sickness, to a father who is already preparing for the end days.

One of the most compelling stories is of his daughters, Libby and Sara, who find themselves alone in their house when he contracts the sleeping sickness and is taken away for treatment. They are in their own kind of quarantine: stuck inside their house for fear of being taken away also, caring for a litter of kittens, and watching their town fall deeper and deeper into chaos.

The structure of the novel functions as a kind of telescope, moving back and forth between close-ups of the characters, and then zooming out again to look at the broader effect of the crisis.

The result is a novel with a dream-like quality that is still utterly grounded in reality. Between poetic musings about climate change, consciousness, and the mutable nature of love, there are logistics: the dwindling of supplies, the news reports from outside the quarantine, the number of beds occupied. In Walker’s deft hands, beauty shines through the chaos at every point, turning the novel into a glittering prism of darkness and light.

Like her previous novel, THE DREAMERS is a slow burning disaster story. The quarantine slowly becomes the characters’ new normal. The small California town slips into chaos as smoothly as someone might fall into sleep. Like the characters, the reader is not moved because of some earth shattering event. Instead, the book moves through you like a dream, and finishing it is more like waking up, and knowing something’s changed overnight.

The Dreamers: A Novel By Karen Thompson Walker Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812994162
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Random House - January 15th, 2019

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