Excerpt from The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Dreamers

by Karen Thompson Walker

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker X
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
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  • Published:
    Jan 2019, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Adrienne Pisch
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Print Excerpt

Chapter 1

At first, they blame the air.

It's an old idea, a poison in the ether, a danger carried in by the wind. A strange haze is seen drifting through town on that first night, the night the trouble begins. It arrives like weather, or like smoke, some say later, but no one can locate any fire. Some blame the drought, which has been bleeding away the lake for years, and browning the air with dust.

Whatever this is, it comes over them quietly: a sudden drowsiness, a closing of the eyes. Most of the victims are found in their beds.

But there are some who will tell you that this sickness is not entirely new, that its cousins have sometimes visited ours. In certain letters from earlier centuries, you may find the occasional reference' - ­decades apart' - ­to a strange kind of slumber, a mysterious, persistent sleep.

In 1935, two children went to bed in a Dust Bowl cabin and did not wake for nine days. Some similar contagion once crept through a Mexican village' - ­El Niente, they called it: "the Nothing." And three thousand years before that, a Greek poet described a string of strange deaths in a village near the sea: they died, he wrote, as if overcome by sleep' - ­or, according to a second translation: as if drowned in a dream.

This time, it starts at the college.

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.


Chapter 2

The girl's roommate, Mei, will later recall waking to the sound of the key turning in the lock. Mei will remember the squeak of the springs in the dark as her roommate' - ­her name is Kara' - ­climbs into the bunk above hers. She seems drunk, this girl, the way she moves so slowly from door to bed, but the room is dim, and' - ­as usual' - ­they do not speak.

In the morning, Mei sees that Kara has slept in her clothes. The narrow black heels of her boots are sticking out beneath the blankets of the upper bunk. But Mei has seen her do this once before. She is careful not to wake her as she dresses. She is quiet with her keys and with the door. Mei leaves only the lightest possible impression on this space' - ­the comfort of not being seen.

This is California, Santa Lora, six weeks into Mei's freshman year.

Mei stays away from the room all day. She feels better this way, still stunned by how quickly it happened, how the friendships formed without her, a thick and sudden ice.

Each evening, Kara and the other girls on the floor stand in towels in the bathroom, blocking the sinks as they lean toward the mirrors to line their lips and eyes. Mei can hear them laughing from the desk in her room across the hall, their voices loud above the hum of the blow-­dryers.

"It takes time to get to know people," her mother says over the phone. "Sometimes it takes years."

But there are certain stories that Mei has not told her mother. Like those boys who came to the door the first week of school. There was a bad smell in the hall, they'd said, and they'd tracked it to this room. "It's like something died in here," they'd said, walking in without asking, filling up the narrow room, flip-­flops and board shorts, baseball caps low on their heads.

The boys got excited when they began to sniff around Mei's desk. "That's it," they'd said, pressing their hands to their noses. "It's gotta be something in there." They'd pointed to the bottom drawer. "What the hell do you have in there?"

It was her mother's dried cod, which had arrived in the company of three bars of dark chocolate and two lavender soaps.

"My mom makes it," she'd said. This is one of her mother's few inheritances from her own mother, Mei's grandmother, the only one in the family born in China and not San Diego. "It's fish."

Excerpted from The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker. Copyright © 2019 by Karen Thompson Walker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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