Karen Thompson Walker: The Dreamers (2019)

Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel, The Age of Miracles, was my favourite book of 2013. I adored that book so much. It’s mood, tone, and intriguing premise stayed with me. Needless to say that when I saw that she finally had a second novel out, I had to read it.

The premise of the The Dreamers is maybe not as intriguing as the apocalyptic premise of The Age of Miracles, but it’s still interesting. In a small college town in Southern California, a girl falls asleep and doesn’t wake up anymore. Soon there’s another one and then another one until there’s an epidemic. The city gets cordoned off. Nobody can enter, nobody can get out. More and more people fall asleep and don’t wake up. They all have one thing in common—they seem to be dreaming constantly. When the first girl dies, people get even more alarmed. The hospital is flooded and many of the staff fall asleep as well. Soon there are almost more sleepers than people awake and many of the sleepers die.

Unlike her first book, this one is told from multiple perspectives. The main characters are – two small girls whose father’s a survivalist, two college kids, a psychiatrist from out-of-town, and a husband and wife with a tiny baby. It was interesting to see the story told from many angles but unfortunately, it also meant it didn’t have the impact of The Age of Miracles. There was no specific tone or mood, just good-story telling. I definitely wanted to know why they fell asleep and what would become of them.

Once I finished it, I had to admit I felt underwhelmed. I thought at first that it was because my expectations were too high but then I realized that it reminded me too much of Camus’ La peste. It’s possible that this is just an unfortunate coincidence, but it’s equally possible she meant this as some sort of retelling. I didn’t read any other reviews or author interviews, so I have no idea. Unfortunately, for her, it’s hard to compete with Camus. That said, I’m sure many people will love this as it explores a topic we’re all, to some extent, afraid of – the outbreak of an epidemic. Her approach isn’t personal but social. She explores how fear affects people. She looks at the moral choices people make to either save themselves or help others.

There’s a quote from Catherine, the psychologist that I like a lot:

Worry, she reminds her patients, is a kind of creativity. Fear is an act of the imagination.

Seeing how people react to this unknown, contagious, and potentially life-threatening affliction illustrates the quote. People’s behaviour depends so much on what they imagine will happen.

The book also does ask some universal questions about illness and morality. There are so many who fall asleep and need help that, after a while, those still in good shape have to make choices who they will help. Someone they know? A younger child instead of an older person? Randomly? And what about pets – once food gets scarce inside of the city, should they still be fed?

Given the title, which isn’t The Sleepers but The Dreamers, it’s not surprising  that the nature of reality is another important theme. How do we really know we’re awake when sometimes dreams are so vivid we can’t tell we’re sleeping?

While I was a bit disappointed, expecting something with a similar tone and mood to her first novel, and because it reminded me of Camus, I still found this a compelling book. Her writing flows so well and the pace and structure are very balanced. And there are so many topical themes that make it ideal for a discussion group.

26 thoughts on “Karen Thompson Walker: The Dreamers (2019)

  1. When I first heard about this book on another blog I commented that it sounded like La Peste. It is indeed hard to compete with Camus. With that, I tend to like books about plagues and public crises.

    Maybe I will start with Age of Miracles.

    • You’re spot on. La Peste is a favourite novel, so, the comparison wasn’t in her favour and it lacked something. It’s readable but ore entertaining than great. The Age of Miracles is fantastic. A coming-of-age novel and an apocalyptic meditation. I’d love to hear eha5 you think of it.

  2. Saramago’s Blindness came to mind as I was reading your review of this, another book that’s held in very high esteem. The Dreamers sounds somewhat less horrific than Blindness, but even so, the scenario at its heart raises some very tough dilemmas…

    • I forgot to mention Saramago. There’s an epigraph with a Saramago quote.
      She definitely thought of that. I didn’t find this horrific. She asks important questions but it lacks originality. I’ve still to read Blindness.

        • Thanks for the warning. This is definitely toned down. There isn’t really a nasty character in this book. The anxiety of the people could get to you. Especially to people with kids. The parts with children are the most emotional.

  3. Sorry to know that you didn’t like this as much as her earlier book, Caroline. I want to read Camus’ La Peste now. Loved the quote about worry that you have shared. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Hi Caroline, I too loved The Age of Miracles. It was a fascinating “What If” dystopian story, but she tells it through the lens of one child, and I liked that approach. From what you’ve written, I have a feeling I would concur with your review of The Dreamers, though the subject of how an epidemic starts is an interesting one. to that end, have you read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel? I found that to be a terrific novel.

    • Hi Jackie
      You were the reason why I picked up The Age of Miracles. I liked it so much. It’s very possible you’d feel the same about this one. yes, it has its momenst but overall I was underwhelmed. Station Eleven is another absolute favourite of mine. Since you love that to, it really is likely you might feel the same about The Dreamers. She clearly tried to do something else here and I can’t blame her. The Age of Miracles is a tough act to follow.

  5. I immediately thought of Saramago’s Blindness too. But the premise here also seems like it might have gone in a different direction, maybe one akin to Vincent McHugh’s wonderful I am Thinking of My Darling, about an epidemic that renders people deliriously happy.

    I’m curious to know how the epidemic is used metaphorically here. If La Peste comes to mind, with its allegory of Nazism, what’s the allegorical level here, if any? I’m also intrigued by the novel’s being set in Southern California, that land of dreams. Are there specific SoCal resonances? What also comes to mind there is John Carpenter’s film They Live, about a Southern California epidemic of its own sort.

    • I will have to look up I am Thinking of my Darling. They aren’t happy here. They seem to have mostly stressful dreams. I felt the solution to it all a bit lacking. This novel has no political implication. The similarity with Camus is purely in the moral level. Those who decide they don’t want to keep themselves safe, but instead help others in need.
      I still haven’t read any reviews, so I’m not entirely sure what her aim was. I’m not familiar with They Live.
      The Saramago influence is obvious or she wouldn’t have chose a quote as epigraph.
      As to why it’s set in California . . .She uses a fictional town called Santa Lora, named after an invented saint.

      • Interesting. I like the concept anyway, even if the execution sounds a bit wanting.

        Half the towns in Southern California are called Santa something or other, so it’s not unusual for authors to fictionalize one using that appendage (see Ross MacDonald and Sue Grafton).

        • It is very interesting.
          About the town, I wasn’t clear in my comment, they name is fictional in the book. The owner of an estate named it, so it’s a bit like a place that doesn’t really exist. But, of course, it’s stil the author’s invention.

  6. This does sound interesting but I’ve not read this author at all so perhaps its better to start with The Age of Miracles. La Peste is one of those novels that really stays with you so any novel that is reminiscent of it is making a tough comparison for itself.

    • Yes, indeed. The similarity with Camus didn’t help. Other than that, a very intriguing idea but nothing compared to hear first which liked so much. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

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