Fear of the unknown is the kernel of Karen Thompson Walker’s new novel, The Dreamers (January 2019).
A mysterious illness settles over an isolated California town, starting at the college, where students fall asleep and never wake. It, whatever it is, soon spreads at a rapid rate, infecting and affecting the lives of a freshman student, a couple with a newborn, two young sisters, and a middle-aged biology instructor. Some panic, and others prove their mettle. Those who sleep are furiously dreaming, and we are drawn into the haunting dreamscape ourselves, never really knowing what is real and what is not.
Told in third-person present tense, the story reveals how mystery conspires with memory to motivate ordinary people to react under extraordinary circumstances. The reader peers into the private lives of those affected by the “sleeping sickness,” and what happens when secret fears are thrust into the open. Walker expertly weaves the twin specters of denial and hoax throughout, teasing readers’ assumptions and subverting expectations of what we think it is, and who is culpable.
Even as questions are answered, mystery lingers. This, and the immediacy created by the use of present tense, compel the reader to imagine what if? The author’s prose is brilliant in its ability to evoke and disturb at once. The Dreamers crafts one community’s response to a crisis, and inspires us to question what we think we know about the shaping of individual and collective consciousness.