book review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

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THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker
★★★★☆
Random House, January 15, 2019

The Dreamers is a wonderfully eerie and speculative novel about an epidemic that takes hold of a college town, in the form of a gentle disease which causes people to fall into a deep sleep that they cannot be woken from. As long as these individuals can receive medical care and be fed intravenously they are in no immediate danger, but the more people who fall prey to the highly contagious sickness, the more difficult it becomes to look after the sick.

This is a mesmerizing character-driven novel. Station Eleven is going to be brought up frequently in conversation with The Dreamers, and I know that comparing books to other books can get tedious but in this case it’s with good reason. Emily St. John Mandel’s influence can clearly be seen on the construction of The Dreamers, with its omniscient narration flitting between a panoply of characters who are all affected by the sickness all in different ways, their narratives occasionally intersecting but each with its own distinct arc. But Karen Thompson Walker’s novel is not without its own unique spin – the disease is much more contained than the one that devastates civilization in Station Eleven, and consequently this isn’t so much a survival novel as it is a novel interested in examining its central concept – sleeping, dreaming – through lenses of disparate psychologies and philosophies and sciences, which all come together to tell a story that’s as thought-provoking as it is readable.

The only reason I’m dropping this to 4 stars is that there was a bit too much ‘isn’t childbirth miraculous aren’t babies astonishing‘ in a few of the characters’ narratives and it got to be a bit much for me, but that’s strictly a personal preference. Everything else I adored. Karen Thompson Walker’s writing is both assured and understated in the best possible way, and the way she builds tension is just spectacular. I could not put this book down.

Thank you to Netgalley, Random House, and Karen Thompson Walker for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.