Walker, who set her first novel, The Age of Miracles (2012), in a dystopian near future, returns to the present with this science-fiction fairy tale about a mysterious epidemic putting inhabitants of a California community to sleep.
The first victim in Santa Lora is a freshman at the local college discovered in her dorm room breathing but unwakeable. Soon more students are falling asleep, as are the medical personnel caring for them. On the 14th day, when there are 22 sleepers, the local hospital goes into quarantine when researchers conclude the culprit is an airborne virus. Too late. A combination of events including Halloween trick-or-treating and the escape of students from their quarantine spreads the virus. By the 18th day, the number of sleepers requiring round the clock care balloons to 500. The entire town is sealed off, but the number of those infected keeps growing. Within the spellbindingly measured narrative of the public health crisis are woven emotionally charged individual stories. A freshman’s first sexual experience results in pregnancy the night before she’s stricken; the chronicle of the growing life within her counterbalances the evolution of the epidemic. Two other freshmen become volunteers and unlikely lovers. An already paranoid college janitor recognizes the danger of contagion before everyone else; when he nevertheless is infected, his preteen daughters fend for themselves. Their neighbors cope with a fragile marriage while caring for their newborn infant, who may have been exposed to the virus through donated breast milk. A dementia patient seems to regain his consciousness just when others are losing theirs. Political refugees from Egypt see their lives torn apart yet again. The biggest surprise may come when Walker shifts focus to show the dreams and life within individual sleepers’ minds.
What is the nature of an epidemic? What is the nature of consciousness? What mix of loyalty and love binds individuals together? These are a few of the questions Walker raises in her provocative, hypnotic tale.