Karen Thompson Walker, author of "The Dreamers" (Random House, January...

Karen Thompson Walker, author of "The Dreamers" (Random House, January 2019) Credit: Dan Hawk Photography LLC

THE DREAMERS, by Karen Thompson Walker. Random House, 315 pp., $27.  

The swift and terrifying epidemic that rages through the California college town in Karen Thompson Walker’s new novel seems an unprecedented disaster, and in some ways it is. People fall asleep, and they don’t wake up. They dream intensely. Sometimes, they die.

But unexpected hardship and sorrow are nothing new for Santa Lora — or any American town. We are born of calamity. The land’s original inhabitants died of smallpox passed on by settlers. Pioneers starved. Spanish flu victims fill cemeteries. Floods, fire and landslides threaten, and not only in Santa Lora. We have never lived without disaster.

And yet, we persevere, finding grace wherever we can, a case that Walker makes over and over in this moving novel that celebrates the marvelous resilience of the human spirit.

Walker has explored these themes before in the mesmerizing, elegiac “The Age of Miracles,” about a young girl coming of age as the earth slowly sputters to its demise. She excels at wielding the storytelling power of cataclysm without ever losing sight of its effects on individuals.

In “The Age of Miracles” we view the catastrophe from the point of view of a preteen to whom every adolescent change is troubling. In “The Dreamers,” Walker embraces a wider lens to examine how we live in the face of tragedy and how dreams impact our reality.

This approach could feel less intimate. But though she casts a broad net in “The Dreamers” — which owes a debt to José Saramago’s parable “Blindness” — Walker brings the frightened residents of Santa Lora into focus with simple yet potent sketches, investing us in their lives.

There’s Mei, a lonely college freshman, whose roommate is the first to contract the illness — and its first fatality. Other dorm dwellers begin to succumb, too, resulting in a quarantine that throws shy Mei into the path of a boy whose fate is entangled in her own.

Other characters caught up in the epidemic include a professor whose partner languishes in an assisted living facility; a specialist in psychiatric disorders who can’t return to her daughter in Los Angeles; an embattled young couple with an infant who discover that disaster doesn’t erase divisions; and two young sisters whose survivalist father has prepared them for unlikely scenarios but not one without him.

The world at large has opinions on the matter. Santa Lora exists, after all, in a world where social media reigns. “By now, certain alternate theories are beginning to circulate online. It’s the government, they say. Or it’s Big Pharma. Some kind of germ must have gotten loose from a lab at the college.” The paranoid rave of hoaxes and crisis actors is a response painfully familiar to any modern reader.

But don’t expect concrete explanations. Walker is deliberately vague on what the intense dreaming means. “The human brain is subject to all kinds of misperceptions,” she writes, “and the waking mind not always more attuned to reality than the dreaming one.”

And so the sleepers dream on, and life goes on until it doesn’t. A baby grows inside one dreamer. New father Ben walks through the woods daily, pointing out trees and clouds to his daughter. Scared students escape quarantine and speed selfishly away through the night. “What a story they’ll be telling someday,” Walker writes. “How they feel is invincible. And also, suddenly: in love — with each other, with themselves, with life!…They cannot at this moment conceive of it — the danger they present.”

In such moments, we live best, Walker tells us. Awake or asleep.

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