After a night of partying, a college student doesn’t wake up the next morning, or the next. She just sleeps and sleeps. In Karen Thompson Walker’s novel “The Dreamers” (Random House), the sleeping sickness soon spreads to neighbors in the young woman’s dorm in a sleepy college town nestled along a lake in the woods somewhere in southern California.
The students are quarantined, but still more get sick. Confined and bored and scared, the students run off and spread whatever it is they’ve contracted. A widowed dad employed as a custodian at the college comes home in a panic after cleaning the first patient’s dorm room. He locks himself and his two daughters inside their house. He’s a prepper and his apocalypse has arrived. Next door, parents of a new daughter are testy inside their fraying marriage. One by one they fall ill. Two young men are found unwaking in bed together. Walker writes, “Disease sometimes exposes what is otherwise hidden. How carelessly it reveals a private self.”
The sleepers, it seems, have vivid dreams. If they wake, they rise disoriented between waking and dreaming. But an Alzheimer’s patient miraculously awakes from his long illness, lucid, and returns home to his longtime partner, a biology professor at the college.
A dad and baby get caught in a panic at a grocery store. The town is cordoned off. A man is shot trying to escape. Fear, rumors, anger and scapegoating burn through the small community.
Walker doesn’t recount the incidents as a thriller. Her tone is calm, philosophical, parental maybe—a plague artfully considered from a comfortable, thoughtful perspective.
The novel muses on the bonds of friends and lovers and family. Much attention is paid to parents and children—a widower desperate to protect his daughters; a neuropsychiatrist away from her toddler for the first long time; the worried mom of one of the college girls; a woman unwaking but with a baby growing inside her. “This is how sickness travels best,” Walker writes, “through all the same channels as do fondness and friendship and love.”
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