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.

Karen Thompson Walker: The Age of Miracles (2012)

The Age of Miracles

Ever since Jacquelin Cangro reviewed The Age of Miracles, I felt like reading it. I assumed I would like it but I didn’t expect that I would love it so much. It may seem odd to love an “end of the world” story but The Age of Miracles is so much more. It’s as much the story of a disaster as a coming-of-age tale, an exploration of how we adapt to change and a meditation on the fragility of life on earth. Plus the tone of the whole book is lovely and nostalgic.

The Age of Miracles is told by 11-year-old Julia, an only child who is a bit of a loner and a keen observer. Suddenly, one day, they hear on the news that the rotation of the earth has slowed down and as a result the days have grown longer. At first this is minimal but gradually the days and nights extend until, at the end of the novel 72 hour days are followed by 72 hour nights.

The consequences are massive. Many animals and plants die. After a few months, it’s dangerous to go out during daytime as the sun’s radiation can be fatal. Plants only grow in hot houses, people need protection at all times.

Early on the government decides to disregard daylight and to stay on the usual 24 hour clock time. Opposing groups find this unacceptable and adjust to the sunlight. They stay awake longer, sleep longer. Soon there is hostility between those groups and most of the day timers flee after a while and live in communes outside of the cities.

Julia describes all this in great detail. She’s worried but is also surprised how quickly people get used to these changes. But there are many other things on her mind. She was always a loner but the slowing makes her lose even more friends. She is secretly in love with Seth Moreno who is also a loner  which makes it difficult for them to become friends but once they overcome some obstacles, they spend every minute together.

The tone of Julia’s voice and some hints, indicate that she tells this story looking back. It’s the grown-up Julia who tells about the year during which the biggest changes, in the outside world and in her personal world, take place. It’s the year of her first love, of the near collapse of her parent’s marriage and also the year in which everything anyone took for granted disappears forever.

I know that some people found the book alarming because it obviously touches on subjects like climate change and natural disasters. I was more touched by Julia’s personal story, by the tone of her voice which was infused with sorrow. There are as many scenes of great beauty as there are scenes of damage and loss. Ultimately this is a melancholic story about a long goodbye, goodbye from people, things and habits.

When I started reading, I was a bit afraid, the book would be gimmicky. It’s not. It’s a quiet, moving tale. The unusual event is just a means to tell a much deeper story; a story of change, loss and sorrow inherent to all of our lives.