Book Review

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

the dreamers

Imagine a world where sleep could trap you, for days, for weeks, for months…

Karen Thompson Walker’s second novel tells the mesmerising story of a town transformed by a mystery illness that locks people in perpetual sleep and triggers extraordinary, life-altering dreams.

One night in an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a first-year student stumbles into her room and falls asleep. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. When a second girl falls asleep, and then a third, panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. A young couple tries to protect their new-born baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. Two sisters turn to each other for comfort as their survivalist father prepares for disaster.

Written in luminous prose, The Dreamers is a breath-taking and beautiful novel, startling and provocative, about the possibilities contained within a human life if only we are awakened to them.

The Dreamers is set in Santa Lora, a small college town in southern California.  One night, a young woman – a student at the college – falls asleep having felt unwell all evening.  She doesn’t wake up, but continues to live in a state of sleep.  Soon, more students have also fallen asleep, followed by other residents of the town that they have come into contact with.  The town is eventually quarantined by the military, and the pathogen – which will later become known as the Santa Lora Virus – identified.  While The Dreamers doesn’t quite reach “end of the world” proportions, I think that this is a novel that will appeal to lovers of post-apocalyptic fiction – it feels like an exploration of how the end might start, as at first a few people, and then a town become sick with a new, previously unseen virus.

One thing that I love about post-apocalyptic fiction is seeing how ordinary people react to an extraordinary situation, and that’s exactly what we have here.  The reader is introduced to multiple characters including a young girl on the cusp of puberty, the father of a new-born baby, Mei – the roommate of the first girl to fall ill – as well as various others.  These perspectives show a range of reactions to the spread of this sleeping sickness, ranging from the utterly selfless people who continue to help others despite the risk to themselves, as well as those who choose to look after themselves and their family.  There’s no judgement for either group, nor those who fall in between, and I think that both reactions are understandable.

The reader does learn more about the cause of the disease as the novel progresses, as well as the speculation outside of Santa Lora as to the cause – big pharma, the government testing a new biological weapon, a complete hoax.  The origin isn’t the focus of the novel, but I felt that the outside speculation was exactly what you’d expect to see reported in the media were such a situation to occur.  This isn’t a novel with a new twist on every page, and some readers may find the lack of “events” frustrating, but I thought that this was a beautifully written novel which explores the lives of those directly impacted by a new, virulent disease.  It’s a poignant and thought-provoking novel, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed, so much so that, upon finishing, I immediately bought a copy of Karen Thompson Walker’s debut, The Age of Miracles.

The Dreamers is published by Scribner, and is available in digital and hardback versions with the paperback to follow later this year.

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