We live in an age when it almost seems like we’re supposed to be suspicious of everything, of everyone who isn’t quite like us, of all that we don’t, or can’t, understand in the time it takes to read a tweet. It’s so easy, so dangerously easy, to be skeptical and to wonder if what we see is ‘fake news’ and to go about our business as if all the business of other people doesn’t affect us.
I can’t say if Karen Thompson Walker meant any of that to be a message in her new novel The Dreamers but it seems to me, a reader of that novel, to where she might have started from. It’s a terrifying thought, really, to be confronted with how purposefully ignorant we humans can be when we choose to be.
But then, terrifying thoughts often make the best novels.
The Dreamers is the story of a small college town in Southern California where students on one floor of a dormitory start falling asleep and not waking up. It isn’t death, it’s sleep. And no one knows why. Much like the proverbial Patient Zero from the news coverage we’ve all seen of ebola outbreaks in Africa, the story blooms out from the floor of the dorm. More people fall asleep every day, at a rate that seems to increase far faster than all the CDC and infectious disease experts could hope to figure out a cause, much less a cure. The story blooms and jumps around the town – from once carefree college students to suspicious doomsday preppers to already nervous new parents and to a few authority figures who like to pretend they’ve got a handle on things.
It’s intense on levels that are eye-opening, in an age when Ebola outbreaks are generally ignored in America unless pretty young white Americans are infected while helping those who are not pretty, young, or white. The story is fiction, of course, but it could be real. Small Town, America could fall under a quarantine when something we don’t understand quite fast enough infects us. Probably something we could’ve avoided if we’d tried just a little harder to be just a little vigilant, in my skeptical worldview. It will happen, sooner or later, and Karen Thompson Walker seems to have grasped pretty much what it will be like.
The narrative of The Dreamers is succinct in that might count as second person, which is the best way I can describe it, because it takes the reader from one place to the next, always seeming to ‘look in’ on what’s going on. Lines like “Here’s Annie with the baby in her arms…” and “Rebecca lies in her hospital bed…” give the story a flow that seems unique and important. It’s almost like getting to look Here, at This before something grabs your hand and pulls you to look There, at That instead. It doesn’t seem like it would make a cohesive plot, but it does. Because The Dreamers is the story of an entire town of dreamers, and the reader needs to know them all.
The plot, the narrative, the creation of a town full of unique individuals… those are only some of things, albeit the major things, that Karen Thompson Walker gets right with The Dreamers. The novel is diverse (who might count as the Main Character is Mei, a Chinese American girl who is painfully shy and yet incredibly strong and what might count as the purest romance in the novel are Nathaniel and Henry, men who found love after Nathaniel’s wife died and now struggle with Henry’s dementia). The novel tells the story of crisis without being weighed down with logistics and detailed analysis, it is humanity at it’s core. The novel leaves questions unanswered, just as they are in life. And the novel is one that will carry you away and make you think, about yourself and about the world around you.
- The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
- on sale: January 15, 2019 (published by Random House)
- my rating: 5 stars
- categories/genres: fiction / medical fiction / small town fiction / medical mystery / contemporary / literary fiction
I received an advanced copy of The Dreamers from Random House through NetGalley in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.