Review: 'The Dreamers' by Karen Thompson Walker

Gorgeous prose in this menacing piece of modern American fiction


Gillian McAinsh reviews The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
Karen Thompson Walker’s new novel, The Dreamers, lures the reader into a hypnotic and surreal yet quite believable world.
It starts one night in a small college town in California when a student falls asleep and does not wake up.
Her dorm mate Mei tries to rouse her, then when that fails, the paramedics intervene and also fail.
Although puzzled there is no panic, yet, until one more girl falls asleep and then another. From then on the victims drop like dominoes into what seems like oblivion.
It takes a few days for the authorities to realise the gravity of the situation as the illness spreads and becomes an epidemic, fanning out from the college to snatch victims of all ages and walks of life across the town.
What is causing this? How can they stop it? Is there a cure?
Thompson Walker writes in gorgeous prose, drawing the reader slowly and steadily into the lives of those affected by the mysterious sleeping sickness.
There is a subtle thread that connects the dreamers and those who are still awake which makes the reader ask “who will be next?”
Surely the main characters, drawn with such sensitivity that you can picture them clearly in your mind, are safe? Why would the author make us care so deeply about Mei and Matthew, Sara, Henry, Ben and Gracie if they are not going to survive the epidemic?
The author peeks into her characters’ heads and scoops out fear and paranoia, including the conspiracy theories which are likely to pop up if this dreamland were actually to happen today in California.
So often readers have questions which an author simply chooses to ignore, but Thompson Walker now and then gives an “outsider” view which decompresses the tension and makes complete sense.
The Dreamers is about much more than an incurable affliction. It also weaves in the bickering of a marriage, the anxiety of childhood, the insecurity and hysteria of teens and the pain of lost love.
It starts with a similar pace and feel to The Buried Giant, that masterly novel about memory and aging by Kazuo Ishiguro, with The Dreamers’ infection unfurling through the air in a way reminiscent of his mist.
There are also undercurrents of menace as found in Gone Girl and Girl on the Train.
The reader has an ongoing suspicion that they are missing some crucial piece of the puzzle, that everything would make sense if only they could wake up and open their eyes.
However, comparisons are not needed because The Dreamers is its own creation as a mesmerising piece of modern fiction.
Other reviewers have called it “frighteningly powerful, luminous and mysterious” and I fully agree as it’s a spell-binding read which could make a haunting film. Highly recommended!
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker is published by Scribner, recommended retail price of R305.

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