While I usually choose my reading based on what I think I’ll enjoy (which could be from anywhere, anytime), when I do find myself trying a recent release, there’s a little voice at the back of my mind that insists on comparing it to other works. Yes, as much as I’d like to avoid it, if the book is MBIP or BTBA eligible, I’ll always be subconsciously gauging its chances of being longlisted, and if I’m suitably impressed, I’ll even mention its chances in the review. It’s rare, though, that a book demands to be added to that list from the very start, and when it does, I’m always happy to sing its praises.
So listen up – this is a good one…
Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream (translated by Megan McDowell, review copy courtesy of Oneworld Publications) plunges us straight into the midst of the action, a conversation in which a feverish, dreamlike quality turns into a nightmare. We’re in a hospital of sorts, and Amanda, a woman critically ill, is speaking with David, a young man with an urgent tone:
But I’m going to die in a few hours. That’s going to happen, isn’t it? It’s strange how calm I am. Because even though you haven’t told me, I know. And still, it’s an impossible thing to tell yourself.
None of this is important. We’re wasting time.
p.5 (Oneworld Publications, 2017)
The reason for David’s slight impatience stems from Amanda’s critical condition and his desire to help her find out exactly how this happened before it’s too late.
The majority of the book, then, consists of Amanda’s memories of a few short days spent in her holiday home in the country, and her encounters with the charismatic Carla, David’s mother. As we learn more about the characters, including Amanda’s daughter Nina, a growing fear comes over the reader as we realise that something is far from right and that tragedy is just around the corner. However, as David attempts to guide Amanda in the direction of the truth, the facts turn out to be very different from what we initially suspected…
Fever Dream is a superb story, a calm dialogue that somehow sucks the reader into the eye of a storm, a breathless tale of mother-child bonds and heartbreak. The premise of the novel, centred on a simple conversation in a hospital room, belies the complexity of the plotting and the way the writer plays with the reader’s emotions, never allowing us to sit comfortably and relax into the story. As the conversation opens out, Amanda reflects on the last few days, trying to work out what happened in the small town, but David always pulls us back into the room, focusing Amanda’s attention on the details she needs to recall if she is to learn the truth.
The majority of the story is told by Amanda, and the confused tone reflects her physical and mental state, knowing that her life is almost over and wanting to find out how it all happened. Her main concern, of course, is with Nina, and one of the recurring themes of the novel is the idea of ‘rescue distance’, a changing perimeter within which she feels her daughter is safe. David is fascinated by the idea, and asks Amanda to explain the concept:
Why do mothers do that?
Try to get out in front of anything that could happen – the rescue distance.
It’s because sooner or later something terrible will happen. My grandmother used to tell my mother that, all through her childhood, and my mother would tell me, throughout mine. And now I have to take care of Nina. (p.127)
The reality, though, is that rescue distance is a lie, a construct allowing the parent to feel more secure, and part of the power of Fever Dream is exploring what happens when your worst fears come true, showing the impossibility of keeping a clear head when you start to panic.
Yet while Amanda provides much of the background, it’s David who is at the heart of the story’s mysteries. The start of the novel explains his own childhood tragedy, and the scenes where he’s taken to the ‘green house’, to a woman the locals trust more than the inept nurses at the local clinic, push us into seeing the book as a tale of the supernatural, magical realism turning to pure magic. However, the further Fever Dream progresses, the more sober it becomes, with clues dropped here and there pointing to a more prosaic explanation for his own nature and the disaster about to unfold. It’s a small town, but it has more than its fair share of ‘accidents’, and poor Amanda appears to be the latest victim.
The stripped-back nature of the bedside conversation focuses the reader’s concentration, and David comes across as a kind of therapist, taking Amanda back, forcing her to recall tiny details and allowing her (and us) to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. From the first pages, his frequent admonitions (‘I know. Go on.’, ‘That’s not important.’, ‘But they aren’t the important things.’) suggest that far from wanting to find out what happened, he is merely helping Amanda to come to terms with her loss. However, at the same time he is pushing Amanda to reveal what she knows about his own history, in doing so providing a background to the whole story.
Fever Dream is Schweblin’s first work to arrive in English, and it’s certainly an impressive debut. It’s also another wonderful performance from McDowell, who seems to have a knack for choosing her writers (among them Alejandro Zambra and Lina Meruane), the crisp prose passing by almost unnoticed, with David’s slightly stilted voice coming across excellently. The story is expertly paced, a perfect mix of narrative, tangents and interruptions, with the interplay between Amanda and David as fascinating at times as the backstory being told. Yet despite the back-and-forth nature at times, and the conversations within conversations, it’s an incredibly taut work, and despite (or perhaps because of) the fairly simple, unflashy nature of the language, it pushes the reader along.
This is reflected in my own experience of Fever Dream. My first read of the book was a breathless affair, and I pushed right through with a couple of short breaks to gasp for air, finishing in about an hour. My second run through, a month later, where I had imagined I would take a far more measured approach, was fairly similar, and I’m pretty sure I read the last hundred pages without once stopping. The layout of the book encourages this frantic flipping through pages, the sparsely populated pages, with the publisher using 180 pages where another press might have crammed the text into 90, drawing you deeper and deeper into the story until you’re unable to stop turning the pages, desperate as you are to find out the truth.
And the truth? Well, I’m deliberately avoiding that. As much as researchers might say that people enjoy reading books more when they know what’s ahead, there are some stories where the twists and turns should remain untold. Fever Dream is certainly one of those, and if the supernatural events gradually come to be explained more factually, that certainly doesn’t mean that the book becomes more mundane. It’s a novel that has a story to tell, and very little time to tell it:
Why do we have to go so quickly, David? Is there so little time left?
Very little. (p.67)
Well, what are you waiting for? The clock’s ticking…