The first novel of Karen Thompson Walker’s that I read, The Age of Miracles, was a bit of a miss for me. While the story was engaging, Thompson Walker seems to me to have trademarked a clinical way of writing that keeps events and characters at arm’s length from the reader. In her first novel, that just didn’t gel with me and I found it hard to be invested in the story.
But, in The Dreamers, Thompson Walker’s detached descriptions hit the right tone, and the novel came across as affecting without being jarring.
The novel takes place in a university town on the central California coast. It’s a small town, with small town people, and small town problems. People – locals, academics, and students alike – amble through the start of a new year without any major upsets. But amongst the fir trees and quant thatched rooves a mysterious illness awakens, causing those affected to fall into a deep sleep. Those who contract the mysterious illness (It is a virus? A bacteria? Mass hysteria?) are unresponsive to stimuli but are found to be actively dreaming. Very actively dreaming. Some sleepwalk, some mutter or yell out, and some just drift further and further into sleep until their hearts just… stop. The sleep goes on and on as the mystery deepens.
Anyone reading this review would be more than aware of what happens when a mysterious illness starts unspooling. There are conspiracy theorists, deniers, malingerers, complacency and panic. Some overreact to the threat, while others barely react at all. At some point, it touches each life and reactions can be unpredictable.
For a time, I thought this novel would go the way of Stephen King’s terrifying short story ‘The Jaunt’. But it remains firmly rooted in reality and resists the urge to lean in to the lore around dreaming too deeply. This restrained approach was ultimately to the benefit of the story and kept it grounded in reality.
I read this story while wearing a disposable mask on an aeroplane. I was jetting around my state for work and taking every precaution possible, despite the fact my state has no local cases and no community transmission. I realise how fortunate a position I am in. Had I been in the USA, UK, at the centre of a COVID-19 hotspot, or in the middle of an enforced lockdown, I don’t think The Dreamers would have been a wise choice. It could be a little too real for some.
But, just as Thompson Walker has way of describing the events of The Dreamers while remaining somewhat aloof, I too was able to read about the effects of a highly contagious virus with a healthy detachment. The events unfolding on the page were familiar, but I am not currently living through them. For that reason, I was able to finish this book in a manner of days and enjoyed the experience.
All in all, I’ll give it 4 bottles of contaminated breast milk out of 5.