Skip to main content

The Dreamers

Review

The Dreamers

The town of Santa Lora, California, is no stranger to disaster. Between earthquakes, landslides and forest fires, this sleepy college town has seen it all. But in Karen Thompson Walker’s THE DREAMERS, Santa Lora experiences a new kind of tragedy: a highly contagious sleeping sickness that takes over the whole town, trapping its victims in a painless yet terrifying slumber, locked away from the rest of the world.

The sickness begins on a college campus with a freshman named Kara. There are no obvious symptoms, at least not ones that a busy college student who has just come back from a night of drinking would notice. Kara simply returns to her room one night and falls asleep in her clothes. Who hasn’t been there? In the morning, her shy, lonely roommate, Mei, dresses quietly to avoid waking her and leaves to go about her day, avoiding the room and her peers as she often does. But when Mei returns, Kara is still asleep, and nothing she does --- not prodding her, not calling 911, not watching as Kara is carried into an ambulance --- can wake her. So begins the Santa Lora sickness.

With her gorgeous writing and endless empathy, Walker introduces readers to several different characters living in Santa Lora at the time of the outbreak. Each are affected by the virus differently, though their stories are all equally heartfelt and intriguing. THE DREAMERS is a character-driven novel, and Walker is skilled at balancing each of her characters and storylines and reuniting readers with them at exactly the right times. After we meet Mei, we follow her throughout the entirety of the book. When the students who inhabit Mei’s dorm are quarantined, Mei begins to come out of her shell and start her own quiet revolution with a fellow student, Matthew.

"THE DREAMERS is as inventive as it is unsettling, and as intelligent as it is horrifying. Walker balances the real with the fantastic impressively well..."

As the sickness ebbs and flows, the town becomes consumed by the crisis --- though not as quickly as you might expect. What initially seems to be confined to the college soon spreads through the sleepy town, resulting in various levels of ignorance, nonchalance and terror. As the hospital fills up, the sick continue sleeping and, more interestingly, dreaming. We learn from the point of view of a doctor that all of the sleepers have unusually high brain activity levels for not only the slumbering, but the awake as well. But what is happening behind those flickering lids? And what sort of virus is Santa Lora dealing with?

Through Mei’s eyes and the eyes of others, we watch as Santa Lora becomes isolated from the rest of the world. Through quarantine, military invasion and cordon sanitaire (the complete sealing off of an infected region), Santa Lora becomes its own world, and the community grows increasingly more dangerous. Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, truthers arise to question the integrity of the virus, and news of the “Santa Lora Hoax” begins to spread even as more and more citizens close their eyes, never to wake up again. Walker’s portrayal of the media is painfully timely, and the potential for a similar situation to befall us simmers beneath the surface of every page.

In addition to Mei and Matthew, Walker introduces us to young sisters Sara and Libby, biology professor Nathaniel, and new parents Ben and Annie. Sara and Libby live alone with their father, who is a bit of an eccentric, always planning for the next apocalypse. He is a janitor at the Santa Lora college, and when he learns that he and his colleagues have been tasked with cleaning the highly infectious room, his paranoia kicks into full swing. We watch his descent into madness through Sara’s keenly observant yet endearingly juvenile eyes…until he, too, succumbs to the slumber.

Next door to Sara and Libby live new parents Ben and Annie and their infant, Grace. Their marriage is not an entirely happy one, but they live and breathe for their daughter, whose survival seems paramount in the wake of the contagion. Walker’s writing is perhaps at its strongest here as she describes Ben and Annie’s desperate, primitive need to care for their daughter. When they learn that they may have been feeding her infected milk from the local hospital, their horror leaps off the page. Although Mei feels like the main character in many ways, it is Ben and Annie’s story that will continue to haunt you long after you have finished the book.

As you read this review, you may think to yourself, This sounds like science fiction, or a more literary version of “The Walking Dead,” but what Walker has done here is far more powerful than that. THE DREAMERS is as inventive as it is unsettling, and as intelligent as it is horrifying. Walker balances the real with the fantastic impressively well --- we never do learn the cause of the sickness, leaving the imagination wide open for terrifying possibilities. Through her thoroughly developed and relatable characters, she forces readers to confront questions of love, allegiance, public safety and, of course, the power of dreams. Even those who are not interested in contagion stories will be swiftly drawn in to Walker’s lyrical and high-impact prose. Forgive me for the pun, but do not sleep on THE DREAMERS.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 18, 2019

The Dreamers
by Karen Thompson Walker

  • Publication Date: January 15, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0812994167
  • ISBN-13: 9780812994162