Book review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

the dreamers by karen thompson walkerThe Dreamers begins with a young woman student falling ill in a college dorm, with a strange illness whose victims fall asleep and can’t be woken. Soon the infection spreads.

My first thought was this was going to be one of those stories where an epidemic among adolescent females is a metaphor for mass hysteria or repressed sexuality or whatever, but The Dreamers is much more interesting than that. In its dreamlike, haunting prose it follows a number of characters in the small college town, each with their own issues.

We have the college professors with their newborn (ironically caught in their own state of unreality caused by sleep deprivation) and the survivalist determined to protect his family at all costs – but how will his food stores and his weapons ward off an infectious disease? We see the people who help the sick, walking towards danger rather than away from it and consider what drives them.

One thing that emerges about the disease is that, although the patients sleep deeply, their brains show heightened activity. They are dreaming. Through the different experiences of the characters, and with a particular emphasis on babies and birth, the author asks questions about what it means to dream and to create, and whether waking or sleeping is more real. It made me think of Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, in which he suggests, given the powerful effects of sleeping, it might make more sense to question why we wake up.

The Dreamers is a very open book, in the sense that it introduces a wide cast of characters and touches on a lot of themes without providing an explicit thesis on any one. Some might find that unsatisfactory, might want a stronger steer on what the author is trying to say about the nature of sleep, or society, or birth, or family life. For me, this book, like a dream, doesn’t come with a neat resolution, but is rich in imagery and ideas and leaves you feeling reflective and profoundly moved.

I received a copy of The Dreamers from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Dreamers on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of The Last by Hanna Jameson



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