It starts with a girl leaving a party. She feels sick, she tells her friends, like a fever, she says, like the flu. And tired, too, as tired as she has ever felt in her life.
I don’t know what it is lately that I keep reading books about strange illness when I am going through something with my own health, but it made this book all the more peculiar and disturbing. Mei is a college student, one who ‘leaves only the lightest impression on this space’ who finds ‘comfort in not being seen.‘ When she discovers that her roommate Kara cannot wake up. Rushed to St.Mary’s, the doctors cannot figure out what is causing this mysterious sleeping sickness. Shocked, the students grieve the loss of the vibrant popular student, slowly coming around to notice Mei, aware only that she shared the room with Kara, that she is maybe Chinese, Japanese… that she isn’t to be blamed, like them, she couldn’t have known anything was amiss. Soon, the dizziness begins, what if they themselves have all been exposed to whatever Kara had? What if now, the contagion is making its way through the dorms?
It isn’t long before more students are falling asleep, dreaming more erratically, powerfully than people known to dream before. The town is terrified, somewhere in another house, a father (doomsday prepper for just such a disaster, because one will come) begins to shut his own children in, sure that there is more than is being divulged about the college infection. His twelve-year-old daughter Sara is used to this fearful ‘simmering’ this ‘something’ that is bound to happen. How many times has her father been wrong though? She and her sister Libby are maturing, are growing exasperated, embarrassed by their father’s often irrational, outlandish behavior. This time feels different though, this time it’s not just her father, it’s the town! A couple with their newborn aren’t concerned at first. Visiting professors Ben and Annie haven’t been in Santa Lorna long. Their baby girl Grace is 17 days old, they haven’t been exposed to the ill students. Surely it doesn’t concern them, and in their case, ‘to close one’s eyes can be an act of survival’ until it isn’t. Professor Nathaniel is a bit shamed that he can’t quite bring to mind Kara, a student of his dead now. Sorry that more are ill, surprised that the school is making news, thinking about the state of things for the young today. Catherine tries to understand the psychiatry of it, maybe it’s not physical illness, but one of the mind and she is as baffled as the medical doctors. Curious of these dreams and what they mean, psychiatry isn’t much invested in such things anymore, not in these modern times.
As a southern California town is consumed by fear, panic and losing loved ones to the depths of a strange sleep, those in charge can’t figure it out, nor save them. In fact, many fall pray to the illness themselves. Family loses each other be it through quarantine or distance. The National Guard brings to mind bitter history and the horrible things done during other epidemics incite terror amongst the citizens. For many, they find themselves alone for the first time, in a fight for their lives, fearing the unknown. Mei finally relies on another, and discovers maybe she has been asleep in life far longer than the victims.
This is a heck of a story, just the right side of strange but not overwhelmingly so. It feels like something that could happen. What distance is further, more personal than dreams and illness? Dreams that can feel like a lifetime, haunt you when you wake up, illness that no one understands, that makes you a pariah? It has happened, we have certainly seen mass panic where illness is concerned, that’s what makes it scary. I like that it was character driven, that the story wasn’t so much about the illness but how it drew people together or apart. Illness is a bit like a slow dream, nightmare. It was a unique read for me, because the writing was beautiful and I cared about the characters but you don’t spend time with just one in particular. I hate to say one book is just like another book, so instead I will say of all the novels that blurbs claim are ‘like The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Euegnides‘ I felt the same disorientation and spacey, fuzzy emotions reading Walker’s latest offering. Again, I was coming off being sick, so it just fit my mood to perfection. It was like waking from some verwirrender Traum. Yes, read it but you’ll have to wait until the New Year. I think Karen Thompson Walker is an author to watch, I’ve had The Age of Miracles on my TBR list. Time to read it!
Publication Date: January 15, 2019
Random House Publishing