Mini-Reviews: THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker & THE FAMILIARS by Stacey Halls

I’ve been reading quite a lot now that my commute is five hours long. Daily. I read two books recently, a mixed bag – one, a literary fiction that left me cold, the other a historical fiction that was heartwarming.

In an isolated college hall in California, a student falls
asleep and doesn’t wake up. She is alive but sleeping. Her roommate, Mei, is
right there at the start of what can only be described as a surreal event that snowballs
from there. Little by little, people start falling asleep– a lot of them, other
students from the same college, raising questions with regards to how this…
virus? Thing? spreads. The number of cases multiply, some of the affected end
up dying and panic then spreads. There is a quarantine, they shut down the town
and then… one of them wakes up and it becomes clear that these people might be
actually… dreaming weird things in their slumber.

I wanted to read The
Dreamers
by Karen Thompson Walker (Penguin Random House,  January 2019) exactly because of the high-concept
plot. It sounded right up my alley. The story is told from a kaleidoscope of
narratives in mini-vignettes following a bunch of characters as they are
confronted by their fears when the virus starts to spread. It is rather a
snapshot of a tragedy. Sadly, the execution did not live up to the expectations
with a morose, detached, almost apathetic take on a cataclysmic event that
affected so many people. None of the characters are specially developed beyond
the surface probably because the narrative choice is distanced from them. The
fact that out of all the viewpoint narrators, the only one who actually died a senseless
death was the one obvious character of colour in a largely white cast? Just the
icing on a very average cake.      

Rating: 5 – Meh

Now, I was very pleasantly surprised by The Familiars by Stacey Halls ( Mira Books, February 2019), a
fictional take on the historical Pendle witch trials of 17th century
North England and the hysteria around these poor women who were charged with
witchcraft and executed. The Familiars
follows  Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a
17-year-old married girl whose fear of losing yet another baby (and die in the
process) has taken over her life.  She
meets a midwife named Alice Grey and they form a bond of sisterhood and trust –
since Fleetwood discovers how powerless she is in life with a cheating husband
and a an oppressive mother and Alice is someone she can count on to relay her
fears. But Alice is soon accused of witchcraft and taken away and Fleetwood
will do everything in her power to help. But how much power does a woman really
have?     

Both Fleetwood and Alice are historical figures and Alice
was one of the accused who actually survived although no one knows how. Stacey
Halls has imagined a story over this record emptiness by intertwining her story
with Fleetwood’s.  

This is a book about places for women, their voices and
their roles. How can they attempt to stretch those and how it is a different
matter altogether depending on your social class. As powerless as she feels (as
powerless as she is), Fleetwood is
still a gentlewoman with more social capital than Alice and there is a degree
of freedom in that. I loved that she used it to help the other woman over the
bond they formed. The Familiars captured
their lovely sisterhood in a way that felt genuine just as it examined the frenzy
of the trials and the arbitrary use of power help by the people in charge of
them in a way that made me want to punch things.      

Rating: 7 – Very Good

The post Mini-Reviews: THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker & THE FAMILIARS by Stacey Halls appeared first on The Book Smugglers.