*DISCLAIMER* - This book was provided to me as an advanced reading copy. This is my honest review.
In her dreamy, introspective sophomore novel, Karen Thompson Walker takes us into Santa Lora, California, a small college town plagued by a mysterious illness that causes its sufferers to fall into a deep sleep from which they can’t be woken. The Sleepers, as they come to be known, are dreaming, although no one can figure out what it is they dream about. The city shuts down to those trying to come and go, and a once vibrant community filled with students and families falls into a panic. Some people hide inside, others join search and rescue efforts. Few families are left untouched by the illness.
The plot is interesting, but it’s not what drives the novel. It is Walker’s ethereal narration that will keep you reading this page-turning story. Her ability to write life into fictional characters and give them histories - and futures - that you care about is incredible, and this book, which often reads more like a character study than a disaster novel, showcases that talent.
Focusing on several key characters - two young college students, a newly married couple and their young child, and two sisters and their dad - The Dreamers explores the impact of illness on family relationships and friendships. Disease doesn’t discriminate, and its spread can be both obvious and deeply confusing. As they exchange their normal lives for ones of uncertainty and fear, Walker’s characters remain startlingly human. A young college girl cries over a boy who doesn’t reciprocate her feelings. A new father longs for the days when he had fewer responsibilities. A young girl fears more for her cats than herself.
The Dreamers reads like one long, lovely train of consciousness. My favourite pages are the first ones, where Walker describes the emotions of the early days of freshman year of college, when new students are forging friendships and trying things they’ve never been allowed to do before. The desire to belong and fit in runs so deep that, even as the illness starts to spread around the university, many of the students are concerned mostly with what they’re going to do and wear that night. It’s just so human.
Walker also does a miraculous job of describing the illness. Rather than shy away from the science and epidemiology of viruses, she explores the intricate passage of illness from one person to the next, describing in beautiful literary prose the spread of the Santa Lora Virus and the ways it ties complete strangers to one another.
The Dreamers, which comes out early next year, is a beautiful novel - literary fiction at its best. It’s dreamy, emotional, and beautiful. You won’t be able to put this book down.
You can pre-order The Dreamers on Amazon.