Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Dreamers

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker (2019)

I still remember when Walker's first novel, The Age of Miracles, came out and a coworker approached me in the library clutching a copy in front of her and said "You've GOT to read this." A bunch of us read it and talked about it for a while afterward. It was a sensation. I devoured that book in one day and loved it immediately, yet just a few months later couldn't remember very much about it at all. Nevertheless, seven years later as I was reading Walker's long-awaited second novel, I couldn't help but be reminded of her first. I guess I didn't forget it after all.

It begins with one girl asleep in her dorm. Her roommate, Mei, notices that she's been asleep all day and tries, unsuccessfully, to wake her. She's taken to a hospital, but dies. Meanwhile other students fall into the same deep, heavy sleep. The dorm goes on lockdown, but nonetheless the sickness spreads throughout the town of Santa Lora, California. Soon the hospital is full of sleeping patients.

We meet many residents of this small town: Sara and Libby, two sisters who live alone with their paranoid father; their neighbors Ben and Annie, college professors with a new baby; Rebecca, a college student who doesn't know she's pregnant when she falls into her sleep; Nathaniel, a biology professor whose partner suffers from dementia; Catherine, an infectious disease specialist called in from Los Angeles to help with the crisis. It becomes big news, of course, this new disease that nobody knows how to contain. Precautions are taken, decisions are made, and the residents deal with it as best they can while not knowing if the next time they - or their loved ones - fall asleep, it might be for a very long time, maybe forever.

The very tone and atmosphere of this book is perfect for a story about the spread of an illness. It's not action-packed, but instead focused on the minutiae of every day, always with the ominous backdrop of potential calamity. Everyday life is suspended: school is cancelled, the town is under quarantine so nobody can visit or leave, and social gatherings are discouraged in an effort to reduce the spread of illness.  There's nothing most people can do except stay at home, away from other people and their germs, and wait.

I don't want you to think it's boring, though. It's definitely not. We're getting to know the characters and their lives and family tensions and how those are affected by this strange, unforeseen situation. It's quietly ominous in the most enjoyable way. Later in the book you learn a little more about the experiences of those affected. I won't spoil it for you, of course, but it's fascinating to think about. This would be a great book for discussion - I don't think anybody I know has read it yet but I hope someone does soon so I can talk about it with them.

This whole feeling of life being disrupted in a way that's quiet (rather than panicked) is what reminded me so much of The Age of Miracles, I think. That and the ease with which I became immersed in it every time I picked it up and was reluctant to put it down again. A very satisfying follow-up to her first novel that was absolutely worth the wait!

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