When I finished Anna Burns’ Milkman in January, my first book of 2019, I was honestly nervous that nothing else I read this year would be as good. Slight relief has come (and so soon), in the way of Karen Thompson Walker's The Dreamers. While it has not dethroned, Milkman as my favorite book the this still very short year, The Dreamers was, in its own right, nothing short of amazing. Emily St. John Mandel, the genius writer behind Station Eleven said of The Dreamers, “This book is stunning.”
And she is right. A thousand times over.
The Dreamers takes place in a California college town as a disturbing sickness, one that causes sufferers to fall into deep, undisturbable sleep. It starts in a freshman dorm, and then, like the germs we don't think about, it spreads. Quietly at first, as no one really sees or understands what's going on. But, as the days pass, and the number of infected people fall asleep and fail to wake, the town, and then the country, sound the alarm.
Walker tells the story, or rather the story tells itself, because that's how real this novel feels. Every word seemed so carefully chosen that I lost count of the amount of times that I stopped reading and simply marveled at the language on the page. Lyrical. Stunning. Hauntingly beautiful. I could go on, but I think the point has been made: the prose in this book is almost unreal.
As she points out in her acknowledgements, and in post-published interviews, Walker said she did a good amount of research regarding sleep, viruses, and dreams. It shows. The progression of the contagion as it spreads through the town is not only believable in the sense that fiction suspends disbelief, but believable in the sense that it felt real. Authentic. Like I was standing there watching ambulances scream by or Humvees drive down neighborhood streets following the establishment of a quarantine.
“Maybe they dream of the lost and the departed, the once known and the dead. They dream of lovers, certainly, the real and the imagined, that girl at the bar, that boy they used to know.”
I would be hard pressed to find something about The Dreamers that I didn't like. The pacing moved at a consistent rate, one that kept the pages turning and the desire to read still burning. The perspectives, each one different and individualized, were believable and enjoyable to read. And, one other impressive feat: the subtlety behind some of the more unfortunate parts of the story. Walker left a lot of the gruesomeness and awkwardness to our imagination, giving just enough detail for the reader to understand the situation, and imagine how bad it could be on their own. Well done.
I'll be honest, the first thing that caught me about The Dreamers was the cover. We're all told to not judge books by their covers, but let's face it, we do. And this instance of doing so proved positive, so there's always that. Now, onto the next one!