Book Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

Goodreads: The Dreamers
Genre: Fiction, Science Fiction
Rating: ★★★★☆

One night in an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a first-year student stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep–and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics who carry the girl away, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. Then a second girl falls asleep, and then a third, and panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. As the number of cases multiplies, classes are canceled. A quarantine is established. Mei, an outsider in the hierarchy of dorm life, finds herself thrown together with an eccentric, idealistic classmate. A psychiatrist summoned from Los Angeles attempts to make sense of the phenomenon as it spreads. Those infected, she discovers, are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, higher than has ever been recorded before. They are dreaming heightened dreams–but of what?

I’ve been itching to read The Dreamers ever since I saw the book (cover) on IG earlier this year, and then I read the blurb and honestly, how could I resist?! I can’t really pinpoint why I love this cover so much; maybe it’s the combination of text and bright colors over a dark background? Whatever it is, it works for me. So, to say that I was excited to finally find this book a few weeks ago is probably an understatement. At the same time though, The Dreamers has been so incredibly hyped on IG that I also felt a little hesitant about reading it because there’s always a chance (however slim) that I will find the book disappointing. But when Brenda over at The Traveling Sisters told me they were doing a group read, I didn’t hesitate to join in, and I’m so glad I did because this book definitely needed talking about afterwards!

The first night I fell asleep after finishing this, I had the strangest dreams courtesy of the book’s ending. Clearly, the story had gotten into my head, but truth be told, I wasn’t really sure how I felt about it. This was unlike any science fiction that I’ve ever read. When I think of sci-fi, I generally think Michael Crichton–which is great storytelling, but also very heavy on facts, terms that I can’t pronounce and other physic/chemistry related details that oftentimes leave my head spinning. The Dreamers was basically the opposite of that. It’s written in a slow, slightly melancholic and detached way, with alluring dreamlike quality prose. It’s entirely fitting for the title and what the book is about, but it also means that the pace moves at a fairly sleepy pace. Honestly, if the story was any less interesting, I probably would’ve fallen asleep multiple times or really dreaded getting through it. As this is my first KTW book, I didn’t know what her writing would be like, but this was the first “oh” moment when I realized that the book would be quite different to what I expected. It took me quite a while to really get into the story, but after a certain point when the epidemic started getting more intense, I was unable to put it down. While this dreamy-sleepy-storytelling is not normally my style, I found KTW’s prose compelling and too beautiful to leave unfinished.

The story was not so much about the what, how and why of the virus, but about the characters, their reactions, and the impact of the ensuing events on their lives. Told through multiple perspectives, there wasn’t much character development and as a result, you don’t become very invested in any of them; but it was interesting to experience the epidemic through the various viewpoints. KTW highlights the human capacity to endure, and how high-intensity crisis situations can bring people together or pull them apart. I thought this was a pretty unique angle to take in approaching a sci-fi. During the discussion someone asked how we’d react in such a situation and I realized I would probably end up being that anxious, hot mess that everyone wishes would fall asleep–I’d be all panic and absolutely no disco 😂

As we follow the story, we learn that the sleepers experience unprecedented levels of brain activity, higher even than a person experiences in an awake state, but how is this possible and what does it mean? While the question is never really answered, the exploration of memories, dreams, and time, while sometimes abstract and philosophical, was thought-provoking. I enjoyed mulling over why certain people experienced events very differently and trying to decipher what was real and what wasn’t.

In the end though, there were many questions left unanswered and I think that was my biggest frustration with the book. It felt incomplete, like there was no resolution to the story, even knowing that answering the why and how wasn’t necessarily the point. I’m still curious about the message KTW was trying to send or make us understand with this book. With a few days to process the story, I realize I enjoyed The Dreamers a lot more than I initially thought, and I think it’s a story I will continue to think about long after I’ve finished the last page.

Have you read The Dreamers yet or is it on your TBR? I’m curious to know your thoughts! Leave a comment down below and let’s chat 🙂