The Dreamers: A Novel by Karen Thompson Walker

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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

 

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The Water Cure: A Novel by Sophie Mackintosh

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*LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE*

Then we are all just useless there on the lawn, already painfully overgrown, waiting for Mother to find us.

Just what is so terrible out there beyond the territory (island) that King keeps his daughters Grace, Lia, and Sky along with their mother under protection? What sort of men are beyond the waters, dangerous enough that it requires barbed wire? Just what has soured the mainland? Will we ever know?

The girls are cleansed through strange rituals, therapies to cleanse them from the world’s rot, but there is no cleansing for when in mourning. Their father disappeared, and now it is just the women. Is he dead? Missing? What will they do without King, father, protector? What will happen when the threat arrives, in the form of strangers, men?

We know once there were women who sought shelter, but from what? The Water Cure is beautiful and frustrating at the same time. I kept wondering, has the world gone to hell or is this just some brainwashed family, and the men that arrive don’t really confirm much about the world out there. There is a line, “The real trick is how and why we continue surviving at all”, that speaks volumes because really what sort of life do they have? Sister’s only for company, clueless about the world beyond, controlling their personal energies (feelings) in ways the toxic world didn’t ever prepare for, leading to destruction. What are these therapies, to us laughable at best, which lends more to the ‘these women are brainwashed’ theory. “In the heady days without our father, we let our bodies sprawl.” Suddenly their days and bodily toxins are less measured with King gone, their mother swears daughters are ‘hardwired for betrayal’, again making me question King and their mother. Okay, has there been some sort of epidemic?  King travels to the mainland for meager supplies, certainly if other women came to the island something is wrong on the mainland, right?

Strong feelings “weaken you”, and women are full of them. The other women who came, got sicker or better and left. Damaged women, drifting through the girls lives by boat, one even escaping as the girls themselves would if they chose to. But, why would anyone need to escape a place meant to save, a place she chose to come to? A ‘promised place’ according to her mother and King. People don’t run from a healthy world, right? As a reader it’s so hard to take the ‘preparations’ seriously. All one keeps thinking is, ‘this is one deluded couple.’ But the women ‘recoiled’ when they first saw King, so maybe there is some meat to the whole ‘world gone awry’ business. Are the men this bad or is King just feeding his girls a diet of fears to keep them from growing away, becoming women? Better to control their bodies, desires, tame their sexuality, which is why men and the mainland are such a threat. Let’s say the world is normal, much like our own, let’s face it there are enough horrors acted upon women that make them recoil too, it doesn’t require a natural disaster, just a bad man.

A lot of time is spent telling us feelings are bad, that “trauma” is a toxin, well by that token any ‘mainland’ is ruinous, dangerous, and toxic  therefore there is no need for an apocalypse. “Without our father, it is very hard not to think about things going wrong.” Obviously they are all ill prepared anyway, women alone on an island, surely King had to know a time would come when he couldn’t protect them anymore? Safety in numbers, and if family is all that is true and good, shouldn’t they want to create their own families too at some point? Parents won’t live forever. Not much preparing there, eh?

When the men come and emotions catch fire, the sisters come apart. Desire can’t be contained anymore than nature can, because we are nature too. Maybe men are the toxins, with their pulling and pushing, wanting and discarding when boredom arrives. “She was just like every other woman.  Eager and tender-hearted.” Girls, easily manipulated with all their wants, desires, their treacherous toxic ‘personal energies’ always in excess with girls, women. Women, trapped forever “absorbing the guilt and sorrows “ of the world. Maybe women are islands themselves. I know my review is disjointed, but that is exactly my feeling after reading the novel. I don’t trust it and yet I can dig some meaning here and there. It comes off as a sly feminist work.

Of the men, James has some insight to share about the world that is and isn’t dangerous for women, not much different from our own, really. There are lies, so many lies and maybe a life that could be ‘open’ to the girls beyond the island. I can’t divulge much more because it would ruin the story. I enjoyed the writing, it was a uniquely strange novel but I was also irritated without solid answers. No, I don’t need all my stories with happy endings, or tidy explanations but sometimes, with some stories there is a build-up and you expect something to sink your teeth into. The ending here ends up being as dreamy and open-ended as the entire novel. I am still rubbing my eyes in confusion, what was that all about in the end? I both know and don’t know, and maybe that is the intention, to be as unsure as Grace, Lia and Sky.

Publication Date in US: January 8, 2019

DoubleDay Books