Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

In an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a freshman girl stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics who carry her away, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. Then a second girl falls asleep, and then another, and panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. As the number of cases multiplies, classes are canceled, and stores begin to run out of supplies. A quarantine is established. The National Guard is summoned.

Mei, an outsider in the cliquish hierarchy of dorm life, finds herself thrust together with an eccentric, idealistic classmate. Two visiting professors try to protect their newborn baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. A father succumbs to the illness, leaving his daughters to fend for themselves. And at the hospital, a new life grows within a college girl, unbeknownst to her—even as she sleeps. A psychiatrist, summoned from Los Angeles, attempts to make sense of the illness as it spreads through the town. Those infected are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, more than has ever been recorded. They are dreaming heightened dreams—but of what?

First published: 2019

the dreamers

Most books I read are books that have been on my shelves or at least on my radar for a while, but that wasn’t the case with The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker. If you’ve watched my reading plans video, you’ll know that I’m participating in the Buzzword Reading Challenge this year, which means that each month I’m reading a book with the chosen ‘buzzword’ for that month in the title. For January, the word was ‘dream’, and to my astonishment I found out that I had no books left on my TBR that included that word in the title. I went in search for an interesting book to fit the prompt and ended up with The Dreamers, which goes to show that sometimes the most unexpected reads end up being the best ones, because I gave this novel five stars – I loved it! 

At first glance, I didn’t think The Dreamers would be a novel that would feel so close to the pandemic we’re currently in, but it ended up being very similar. In this novel, people in a small college town in California start to fall ill with a virus that makes them fall asleep and not wake up. It starts in one of the dorms on the college campus, but quickly starts to spread through the town – which is what viruses tend to do, as we are all acutely aware of. No one knows where the virus came from, but after a little while, the doctors find out that the people who have fallen asleep display unusually high levels of brain activity: they’re dreaming like crazy, to put it simply. It’s an interesting premise, and anything that deals with dreams and (later on in the novel) with the unstable nature of reality as we know it is right up my alley. Besides that, though, the writing is what truly elavated this to a five-star read for me.

In The Dreamers, we follow quite a large number of different characters, which means that, as a reader, you don’t get to spend that much time with each character individually. Nevertheless, all of the characters felt very distinct and fleshed out. With so many different characters, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had started to blend together, or if they ended up being very stereotypical, but that wasn’t the case at all. Karen Thompson Walker knows how to evoke the very essence of a character using only a few sentences, which I thought was very impressive. I really got a sense for all of their personalities and I fully understood why they made certain decisions, even when those decisions weren’t necessarily the smartest or the kindest thing to do. 

The aspect of the novel that impressed me the most in terms of the writing style was how effortlessly the story switches between intimiate moments between specific characters and the panoramic view of the entire crisis in this town of Santa Lora. The story is told through an omniscient narrator, who is relating the events after the crisis is already over, although we don’t know how it ends. This narrator zooms in on the specific situations the characters find themselves in, but then, in between these longer, character-focused chapters, zooms out again to spend a few short chapters explaining what is happening in the rest of the town, and how the authorities (and the nation as a whole) are handling the crisis. Switching between these individual and collective perspectives really gives you a good look at the entire situation, and it also made for a more intense reading experience.

Which brings us to the other aspect that made this a very interesting reading experience: the parallels with the corona pandemic we’re currently in. I hadn’t realised this before going in, but the situation in The Dreamers is actually quite similar to our own. It’s on a much smaller scale, and has a more magical tinge to it, but I definitely recognised so much of what we’re going through. What stuck out to me most was how accurate Thompson Walker’s depiction is of how people react to such a virus outbreak. While some people are instantly terrified, others don’t believe in the severity of the situation. More than that, outside of Santa Lora, rumours of the outbreak being a hoax orchestrated by the US government start circulating. It’s all very familiar, as was this quote from the book, which really struck me:

This is how the sickness travels best: through all the same channels as do fondness and friendship and love.

All in all, The Dreamers proved to be such a wonderful surprise. It’s a very intense ride, and I don’t think it will appeal to everyone – especially not if you’re looking for a book that wraps everything up neatly in the end – but if everything I described sounds at all interesting to you, I’d highly recommend picking this up!

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Hi! I'm Anne and I love reading, baking and writing about both of those things. Welcome!

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