by Karen Thompson Walker
Genre: Fiction, Science Fiction
Length: 320 Pages
Release date: January 15, 2019
Publisher: Random House
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.
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?
Written in gorgeous prose, The Dreamers is a breathtaking novel that startles and provokes, about the possibilities contained within a human life—in our waking days and, perhaps even more, in our dreams.
My thanks to Random House for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher.
If you like stories which answer all of your questions by the end and wrap everything up in a neat little bow, The Dreamers may not be for you. However, if dreamy, evocative prose and heartfelt relationships between characters are what make a novel worthwhile for you, I definitely recommend giving The Dreamers a chance.
The Dreamers alternates between the perspectives of multiple characters in the aftermath of the outbreak of a mysterious sleeping sickness. Sufferers fall into a REM-like sleep and cannot be awoken, but appear for all intents and purposes to be otherwise healthy. The science fiction aspect of the story remains in the background, while the reactions of people both on an individual level and as a group are the focus of the novel.
Facing rising panic in the community as the disease remains a total mystery and continues to spread, we get to know the young daughter of a doomsday prepper who never envisioned this particular possibility, the father of a newborn who is struggling with the danger to which is child is now exposed, the roommate of patient zero who feels guilty for not noticing and trying to help sooner, and a psychiatrist working to solve the mystery of the sleeping sickness. Pressure slowly mounts as a quarantine is put into place and each of these characters spends day after day in fear.
This rising tide of panic provides some of the most interesting passages in The Dreamers. The story is deeply psychological, pushing each character to their limits, often coming back to the same question: will you help when it becomes difficult, when it’s scary, when it can come at great personal cost? What is your breaking point? What if you would put your loved ones at risk in addition to yourself? With the constant threat of spreading this mystery contagion, some characters will step up and some will run for cover. At each step of the way, we are called to sympathize with them for these choices, whether or not we agree with them.
As I said, The Dreamers may not be for you if you need all of your questions answered by the final page of the novel. Despite thoroughly enjoying the process of reading this, I felt at the end that there was a lack of resolution. I wanted more answers. I wanted closure and a concrete sense that those who remained were forever changed by the experience. This lack of resolution kept this from being a five star book for me, but Karen Thompson Walker’s gorgeous prose and exploration of human emotions were well worth the time invested in this novel.
Thank you for reading! Have you read The Dreamers? What were your thoughts? Do you prefer science fiction where the deviations from the real world are front and center, or consigned to the background and used solely as a catalyst to explore what it means to be human? Discuss in the comments!