This was another book that was displayed by the wise librarians to reel me in. As usual, it worked. Apparently, Karen Thompson Walker is known for her debut novel, Age of Miracles, which appeared on loads of “Best of” lists the year it was published. I will be hunting that book down immediately.
The apocalyptic-pandemic trope is a popular one, but Walker does something completely different with it here. A freshman at a small college in California falls asleep and doesn’t wake up. What soon becomes known as “the sickness” claims more students from her dorm floor before leaving professors, custodians, townspeople, and health care works inexplicably asleep.
While this genre of fiction usually deals with how people handle this kind of crisis, the plot is usually driven more by the mystery of the illness. What is causing it? Where did it come from? How does it spread? How can it be stopped? All of those questions are present here, but instead of focusing on the illness, Walker puts the emphasis on the social dynamics of the people involved.
The looming uncertainty of something that doesn’t kill, in most cases, but renders the victims unconscious and completely dependent on others to keep them alive strikes at the vulnerable core of being human. Interesting scenarios come into play here. The social politics of college freshman living on the same floor. A young couple who struggle with a newborn baby that magnifies the strains in their relationship. A grieving father whose need to keep his daughters safe breeds paranoia. A biology professor riddled with guilt at his inability to help his ailing partner. The illness that seeps through the town becomes almost a relief. It’s a distraction and respite from their lives.
Many folks have compared this novel to her debut novel unfavorably. A quick search as I pulled my thoughts together about the book revealed a mixed bag of reviews. Cannonballers ardaigle and yesknopemaybe thought the prose was good (and it really, really is) but found the book lacking. A lot of folks thought it was too much of a slow burn and lacked resolution. It is a slow burn and it didn’t have a super clear cut ending, but I LOVED this book. I read it voraciously and did not feel let down at the end. Highly recommend.