I have been trying to explain / review / recommend Fever Dream for weeks now and I often find myself stuck between the compulsive need to push it onto readers just so I can have someone who would swap theories with me (about the ending, the beginning, THE End?) and the impossibility of a coherent description that wouldn’t spoil your fun. It’s hard to believe I’m writing this about a novelette of barely 160 pages, but Samanta Schweblin does not waste a single word in building one of the most interesting stories I’ve read in a while.
Fever Dream reads like a two-hander for an indie theatre. It’s easy to imagine Amanda, the dying woman trapped inside her memories, and David, the obsessive young man kneeling by her hospital bed narrating the story on a spare, ominously-lit stage. That’s all there is on the page: a relentless Q&A in which David pushes Amanda to analyze the mental film reel of a particular afternoon she had spent with David’s mother. They’re trying to get as close as possible to a Patient Zero moment—the exact instant in which “the worms” were unleashed.
It’s very important, it’s very important for us all.
We do not know what the worms are, we just sense that they’re killing Amanda and might be killing them / us all. The film reel cranks back to that afternoon. David’s mother Carla breaks down in front of Amanda, confessing that she’s terrified of her own son. David has been sick for six years, ever since he drifted into a poisoned stream running through the tranquil Argentine countryside. Carla has miscalculated the rescue distance (the novel’s title in the original is Distancia de rescate), an almost maniacal approximation of how far away a mother can be from her children before it’s too late to save them. Amanda’s inherited this obsession from her own mother, but—as she makes it clear from the very beginning—she’s failed at keeping her beloved daughter Nina safe, just like Carla has failed David. Worse even.
“No, that’s not the story, it has nothing to do with the exact moment. Don’t get distracted […] None of this is important.”
I can hear David creep-screeching into my ear and interrupting the flashback as I type this. OK, OK, fine! (It is though. All of it is important—maternal love and obsession, collective guilt and individual responsibility… but yes, we don’t have time, I get it.) From Amanda’s stuttering memories we piece together David’s story. Following his toxic river incident, a desperate Carla rushes David to a local psychic. The old woman warns that the boy’s survival comes at a steep price: David’s soul will be separated from his body and migrated to another host. Carla accepts the bargain. Six years later, the family pets are dead and David no longer calls her Mother. There is nothing but darkness behind his eyes.
I could go on about what happens when David met Nina, except—we don’t really know. That’s *drumroll* not important. The tension grows as the stain of toxicity spreads and spreads and we eventually see where the poison originates. The revelation of the rescue distance between Amanda and Nina in the exact moment in which the hinted at ecological disaster unfolds and Nina becomes infected with “the worms” is a punch to the stomach.
If you read any of this and thought: oh, nice, South American magical realism… I’m sorry, we can never be friends. Personal bias against the genre aside, Fever Dream is not a book you can easily pigeonhole. Like South America itself, it is far removed from the monolithic and antiquated notions still floating about literature translated from the continent. If I were to call it anything other than excellent, I would think of it as a thoroughly modern piece of eco-gothic-thriller-meditation on our tragic inability to protect our loved ones as we poison the world around us. (And that’s only scratching the surface tension. There is an entire layer of narrative I’m probably not qualified to pick up on as I’m not up to speed with the environmental impact of intensive farming in Argentina.)
Call it whatever you want, but read it and then come tell me all about your theories and help me figure out what was up with that nightmarish bird.
Published By One World. 160 pages. Translated by Megan Mcdowell.
Sofia Fara International Fiction blogger and member of Books Without Borders Bookclub.