For this month's Book Club, Jen Campbell reviews The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker, author of the bestselling novel The Age of Miracles.
Karen Thompson Walker's debut novel The Age of Miracles was published in 2012. A bookseller at Nomad Books pressed it into my hands saying it's one of the most unsettling things I've ever read. Ok, I thought, I'll try it.
They weren't wrong. The Age of Miracles is one of those rare books that follows you around years after reading. Told from the point of view of a twelve year old girl called Julia, it documents the beginning of the end of the world. The rotation of the earth has started to slow. No one knows what to do birds start falling out of the sky; society becomes divided between those who live on clock time and those who live on sun hours. It is absolute chaos but the beauty of this book is that the text itself is anything but. We don't leave Julia's family; we witness everything on a small, real scale. The things that were important to Julia before the world started falling apart are the things that remain important: she's still worried about her parents' marriage, her school, her friendships. It's a refreshing if sobering reminder that for the most part we don't morph into superheroes when disaster strikes.
When I read the blurb of Thompson Walker's second book The Dreamers, published last month, I was both excited and nervous. I was looking forward to seeing how her writing had evolved but had reservations about it being too similar to her debut. The Dreamers, like The Age of Miracles, sets itself up as a pre-apocalyptic text. In this novel a sleepy Californian town falls asleep. One by one its inhabitants slip into a coma. It's a poisonous fable.
Fiction like this seems almost infectious itself. You can't help but draw a comparison between this and Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven. There are extraordinary moments in The Dreamers where some of its sleepers wake up, and during those moments I was strongly reminded of Josh Malerman's Bird Box (the only book to give me actual nightmares). I caught glimpses of Robert J. Sawyer's Flashforward, too the list could go on. Yet, despite being reminded of those novels, I wasn't reminded of The Age of Miracles. Thompson Walker's books share similar topics but their execution is very different.
Her debut is insular but The Dreamers zooms out, following a host of different characters, jumping from one to the next much like the illness driving this story. We meet a father who has always believed the world is going to end, a student who doesn't feel she fits in, two new parents struggling to cope, a man caring for his ill partner By darting from person to person, the text becomes frantic; we aren't offered the opportunity to care deeply for one character before we are dragged to the next. This means we become exhausted trying to remember everyone's names and backstories; it means sometimes it's confusing. I'm not saying that we don't feel anything at all when reading this we absolutely do but we lose the intimate narrative offered up by The Age of Miracles and instead become helpless observers.
Whilst these things could be seen as negatives, and in some ways they are, they are also the book's strengths. After all, catastrophic events don't allow time for pause, they don't make things easy, and they impact more people than you could possibly name. The pace of this book, along with the questions it poses, made me feel unspeakably anxious. What would happen if a disease took hold of a town and exhausted its resources? What would happen if a hospital overflowed? What would happen if the outside world wanted to help you, in theory, but also said it needed to cut you off in order to protect everybody else?
Reading this book felt like being plugged into an endless newsfeed; I came out of The Dreamers as though waking up. The novel remains hazy around the edges; I'm left with a feeling rather than something concrete. All of this is fitting. Do I prefer it to The Age of Miracles? It's a close call but I don't think so. Perhaps that's because the narrator of The Age of Miracles was such a close companion. She was there to hold our hand when everything went wrong. There's no one there to hold our hand in The Dreamers. We're all alone and it's terrifying. Then again, that's the point.
This review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell. The book club exists in a purely digital sphere but we hope that you will add your own thoughts and comments below. As a thank you, all those who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win a copy of 'Spring' by Ali Smith, the next book to be reviewed.