Prosy and exhilarating

Published On: January 31, 2020 12:16 PM NPT By: KUMUDINI PANT

In a small, isolated town of Southern California, a drunken girl stumbles into her dorm room and goes to sleep. Days pass and she doesn’t wake up. She’s perfectly fine—except she seems to be in an eternal sleep.

And now, whatever this new, unheard disease is—it’s spreading.

Doctors and nurses are the first ones to be infected, then the family members of the patients. Slowly it breaches hospital grounds, knocking down more and more innocents. 

“This is how the sickness travels best: through all the same channels as do fondness and friendship and love.”

The best part about the story of The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker isn’t just the subject. The book has a vast array of characters and is driven by them; each with their own subplots, psychological issues, and a place in the story. With different individuals, we are given varying perspectives on how the human mind tends to view plagues with a sympathetic detachment until it arrives knocking on our doorsteps. 

It isn’t every day we see a book that brings in characters that are strange, interesting and sympathetic. To include those traits among more than two or three characters is nothing short of impressive. Yet Walker does it flawlessly. We have Mei, a socially anxious girl in college trying to fit in. Then she’s locked in quarantine with strangers in her dorm. We have a homosexual college professor whose lover, suffering from dementia, is in a homecare; two little girls whose paranoid father keeps them in a lockdown whenever he thinks the world is about to end, an Egyptian journalist who is a refuge in the country after writing against the government policies. And now, he wonders if he had made the right choice. All of them bring a unique angle to the story.

However, the most interesting characters for me were Ben and Annie, a young couple trying to find a way out of the town with their newborn baby. Theirs is not just a story of survival; it’s about love for their child and each other. It’s about adjustments you make in marriage and parenthood. Most of all, it’s about the suffocating fear of losing their innocent baby to something incurable when her life has barely begun. 

Among all the other characters we follow, the couples’ story was frightening to read. I had to put down the book a number of times during their sections because I was reading it through a film of tears. It depicts how the stress of frightening possibilities is capable of tearing apart even the most affectionate people, that love isn’t always enough and choices aren’t always about doing the right thing.

Another interesting issue the book highlights is how, in the absence of medical teams, the ‘sick’ patients become ‘dangerous’. The question of blurred lines between self-preservation and alienation is harrowing to answer. Whether we’re capable of overcoming it and the aftermaths of that incapability is an issue The Dreamers develops well. 

Walker also tends to drop certain ideas and facts without seeming like she had intended to. In a conversation after they’re put into lockdown by the government, one of the characters talks about the time U.S. military put all the sick people in quarantine and set them on fire to end the plague once and for all. What follows is a series of events propelled by distrustful citizens and rebellion inside the quarantines, causing more and more problems. This happens a number of times where the author reveals small events in history that are applicable to what is happening in the plot. But it never feels pretentious as they flow so well with the story.

“Not everything that happens in a life can be digested. Some events stay forever whole. Some images never leave the mind.”

What makes the novel work so well is the writing. Walker has used third-person present tense to tell her story and it fits with the setting perfectly. There is a notable detachment between the reader and the characters because of the narration. But this distance doesn’t take away from our experience. Rather than following one character, the readers are forced to see a culmination of tragic stories clashing together due to a harrowing event—and it’s mesmerizing. The writing also tends to lean towards nightmarish at times, describing horrifying sights with strange observations and character responses that leave the reader feeling cold and hypnotized.

The only criticism I have for The Dreamers is the way it ended. There were too many unanswered questions. It felt as though the story was thrillingly built to a disappointing conclusion.

The novel might not work for a lot of people because of its prosy writing. However, if you’re one of those people who loves an electrifying experience with a multitude of flawed characters, strange happenings and realistic drama, The Dreamers can be the perfect book for you. 


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