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On a university campus in southern California, a college student falls asleep and cannot be woken. Over the following weeks, an inexplicable sleeping sickness sweeps through the nearby town, causing an epidemic that baffles medical experts and puts the community in quarantine. With the army patrolling the streets, a cordon established to prevent anyone leaving or arriving, and medical tents erected when the hospital reaches capacity, the stage is set for a story about a community slowly, quietly imploding.

Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel, The Age of Miracles, portrayed a dystopian future narrated by an 11-year-old girl in which the earth’s rotation slowed, causing a sequence of environmental disasters. In the dystopian present of The Dreamers, the destruction is turned inwards — it is humans who are slowing down — and Walker employs an extensive cast of characters to tell the tale of encroaching paranoia, fear and isolation. There is painfully shy first-year student Mei who, at the novel’s opening, is “still stunned by how quickly it happened, how the friendships formed without her, a thick and sudden ice”.

The Dreamers - By Karen Thompson Walker, Random House, 303 pages, $27 Image Credit: Supplied

There are preteen siblings Sara and Libby, whose survivalist father has predicted this kind of crisis, which has left the girls better prepared — and yet more isolated — than their peers. There are Ben and Annie, endeavouring to repair their troubled marriage while fearing that their newborn baby, Grace, may have been infected by donor breast milk. Walker thoughtfully guides us through various emotional and psychological responses to the crisis: through tentative sexual experiences, childhood resilience and single parenthood. Not all of Walker’s characters are quite so well-rounded, however.

Psychiatrist Catherine — separated from her young daughter when she is quarantined in the hospital — lacks the urgency and angst that one might expect to accompany an enforced separation, and as such there is little emotional engagement with her plight. Ageing biology professor Nathaniel is afforded little agency, in spite of his poignant backstory and the unexpected turn of events regarding his partner’s health. Overall, the novel lacks the dramatic tension the story demands: we know that some of the characters will inevitably succumb to the virus, but we don’t care enough about which of them will survive.

There is, nonetheless, a hypnotic quality to Walker’s writing: “This is how the sickness travels best: through the same channels as do fondness and friendship and love.” Observations come in affecting, economical prose: “Always, there are gaps in these narratives. A limit to what can be known. In some kinds of cracks, speculation is the one thing that takes root.” Lyrical and beguiling, The Dreamers is a deeply immersive novel about a community in peril, collective hysteria, and the moral, emotional, individual and group choices we make when our lives, and those of our loved ones, are in danger.

–Guardian News & Media Ltd