The sleep sickness blooms. First, slowly. Then, swiftly. About three weeks in, 500 citizens — old and young — have fallen into a permanent slumber. Expeditious measures are taken, including quarantines that begin with the college campus and the hospital, and soon the entire region is isolated from the rest of the world. “Every ordinary thing turns ominous,” Walker writes. “A black bulldog wanders leashless in the street. Somewhere nearby, a teakettle whines for many hours. A trickle of water runs all day through the gutter, as if someone somewhere has collapsed while watering the lawn.”
Fans of Walker’s best-selling debut, “The Age of Miracles,” will recognize a handful of similarities between the two novels: Chaos ensues when something goes extraordinarily amiss (in her debut, the rotation of the earth slows down, and in this novel, individuals are trapped in sleep); both are set in Southern California, where Walker grew up; and both narratives tell coming-of-age stories (despite the multiple narrative threads of “The Dreamers,” a boy-meets-girl scenario sparks one of the many moments of tenderness in this book).
[ Read our review of “The Age of Miracles.” ]
Instead of using the first-person voice, as in “The Age of Miracles,” Walker works on a broader canvas here, with a roving, third-person omniscient narrator that creates a symphonic voice. Seamlessly, the author circulates through the town and a specific constellation of characters: Mei; Sara and Libby, daughters of a conspiracy-fueled father; Ben, a young parent; Catherine, a neuropsychiatrist from Los Angeles who is attempting to figure out the precise nature of the illness; and Nathaniel, a biology professor who cares for his dementia-addled father. In the meantime, Walker telescopes in and out among these characters’ experiences and the college town, animating both intimate and panoramic moments of the plague. As with the epidemic itself, there is a generous sweep within this story — and then, just as quickly, the author refocuses the narrative attention onto the ever-changing relational fault lines between her characters. “This is how the sickness travels best: through all the same channels as do fondness and friendship and love,” writes Walker.
Her choice in perspective — combined with the use of the present tense — produces an immediate and urgent portrait of the mounting public health crisis and how the characters’ lives are shaped by the epidemic. Here and there, the narrative gallops at an accelerated pace, almost tilting toward the melodramatic, but, for the most part, Walker bypasses this pitfall. At the same time, despite the dire circumstances, the omniscient narrator’s voice, buoyant yet sympathetic, propels things along.
There are a few minor missteps — convenient plot turns and character developments (for example, the back-story reveal of Matthew, the romantic interest of Mei, and the group of professionals that they encounter during their adventures together) — but these are easy to overlook. Finally, as the title suggests, dreams figure largely in this story, and Walker brings a new kind of meaning to this fictional device. As she writes near the novel’s end, “Each dream contained its own unique physics.”
Readers may draw comparisons between “The Dreamers” and Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” a post-apocalyptic survivalist’s tale set during the aftermath of a horrific flu pandemic, but in some ways, this novel has more in common, thematically speaking, with the haunting, beautiful stories of Lauren Groff’s “Florida” — especially with the way that many of Groff’s surreal stories explore the fear of bringing a generation of children into an increasingly dangerous world. Walker is clearly as preoccupied by the natural forces and rhythms of new life as she is by the end of life. What happens when children are abandoned? What transpires when unknown external forces, like a sleep virus, provoke these separations? Is anyone really up to the task? Can anyone ever recover from the heartbreak of this kind of infinite love? Even though I’m not a parent myself, I found the author’s thoughtful observations of these bonds powerful and moving; Walker invites the reader into this life-defining experience rather than placing it on a distant pedestal. Taken altogether, she produces precarious, tender portraits of parents and children — newborns, teenagers and adults — and suggests that these relationships are what save us in the end.