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BOOK REVIEW: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

| 22 February 2019 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

February 2019
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Fiction / Speculative Fiction


Whatever this is, it comes over them quietly: a sudden drowsiness, a closing of the eyes. Most of the victims are found in their beds.
But there are some who will tell you that this sickness is not entirely new, that its cousins have sometimes visited ours. In certain letters from earlier centuries, you may find the occasional reference—decades apart—to a strange kind of slumber, a mysterious, persistent sleep.

A mesmerizing novel about a college town transformed by a strange illness that locks victims in a perpetual sleep and triggers life-altering dreams—by the bestselling author of The Age of Miracles, for fans of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

One night in an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a first-year student stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, is unable to rouse her. Neither can the paramedics who carry her away, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. When a second girl falls asleep, and then a third, Mei finds herself thrust together with an eccentric classmate as panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town.

Those affected by the illness are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, higher than has ever been recorded before. They are dreaming heightened dreams – but of what?

Written in luminous prose, The Dreamers is a breathtaking and beautiful novel, about the possibilities contained within a human life—in our waking days and, perhaps even more, in our dreams. 



A comment was made in an article a couple years back, about how the tragedy of war is most simply and effectively communicated through the little things, like a child’s shoe in the rubble. I cannot find the exact quote, but the general sentiment was along the lines of focusing on one person close up, as opposed to looking at the numbers. Walker seems to have taken this thinking on board in her new novel, The Dreamers. We see the little tragedies, throughout the documenting of our five main characters, and there is some particularly evocative imagery surrounding the unknowable in a situation like this.

A dog walks alone in the road, his leash dragging behind him. Whose dog is this? people call out to the crowd. Whose dog is this? They keep asking until that dog wanders out of sight, his tags jingling unread, his leash still flapping behind him. It is hard not to wonder what happened to the person whose hand let go of that leash.

But on the other hand, the disconnected, omnipresent, third person narrative can get in the way of a reader really connecting.

Or maybe there’s no sickness at all—that’s what some have begun posting online. Isn’t Santa Lora the perfect location for a hoax? An isolated town, surrounded by forest, only one road in and one road out. And those people you see on TV? Those could be hired victims. Those could be crisis actors paid to play their parts. And the supposedly sick? Come on, how hard is it to pretend you’re asleep?

This reviewer cannot fault Walker’s style, which gives both big and small pictures – nor the writing, which is evocative and tells a large story. But rather, the story itself seems not to entirely know what it wants to be. The blurb suggests that there will be more to do with dreams than there is, and while there is a lot of foreboding in the daily lives of these people, the epidemic itself fails to really feel like the emergency it is. Kinda like a prepper family, constantly waiting for the big event to happen.

The basement: she hates the basement. The basement is proof of everything that could ever go wrong. Here is where they keep the cans of food they will eat if there comes a nuclear winter. Here is the water they will drink when everyone else runs out. Here are the bullets they will use as barter, if one day money loses its meaning. And here are the guns her father will use to guard all that food and that water and those bullets when other people come to steal it away.

The blurb and promotional material suggest that lovers of Station Eleven will enjoy this one, and that could be quite a fair statement. I was not blown away by Station Eleven, and I was not blown away by The Dreamers. That’s not to say that either is not worthwhile, but I was expecting to feel more in both instances. The likening of this book to Station Eleven and Never Let Me Go, should suggest to readers the speed of the plot, though. So if you enjoyed those, you might very well enjoy this.

The Victorians famously feared being mistaken for dead and then buried alive, but now the opposite begins to happen in Santa Lora—some of the people lying so quietly in those cots are mistaken instead for alive.



Category: Book Reviews

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