Fever Dream By Samanta Schweblin

FEVERI 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.

 

fever2
The novel has been shortlisted for International Manbookers Prize 2017

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fever Dream By Samanta Schweblin

The Good Children -Roopa Farooki The Review

roopaGloBooks  finds out whether The Good Children  really was a good read. 

I was fascinated by how they are created,” she said during a recent event for lucky readers at the London based Foreign Fiction Bookclub…. and this fascination underpins her sixth novel The Good Children.

But rather than focus this fascination on a modern-day Hitler or a Joseph Fritzl, Farooki looks for the evil in everyday life, peeling the facade that covers a supposedly happy society family in the midst of the heat of Lahore in post-partition Pakistan to reveal the ugly interior.

While riots rage around them and others wilt under the pressures of a demanding and repressive society, the Saddeq household comprising of a couple, four children and assorted servants, smile through this turbulent period in the history of the Indian subcontinent, albeit with gritted teeth.

Later, the eldest of the four children , Sulaman Saddeq, or Sully, is to become an expert on how evil spread through Nazi Germany and otherwise “normal” people ended up as accomplices to the slaughter of the country’s Jewish population.

roopan.jpg
Roopa Farooki  was the Foreign  Fiction Bookclub`s Guest Author

But the real study begins much earlier in his life and that of his siblings.

The Good Children is told through the eyes of the two sons and two daughters of the household. But the central figure, the anti-protagonist, is their sociopath mother, who puts Grimm’s stepmother into the shade with the brutal manner in which she brings up her children and forces them into stereotypes of perfect children – the two boys are designed to be doctors, the two girls to be wives. Thus she becomes of a metaphor for that most callous of monsters – a repressive society.

The story charts the attempt of  each these four children to escape the clutches of the fate she has bestowed on them. But as Sully, the eldest son, finds out, physical distance alone does not banish her ghost.

The story begins with the four children in their teens. Mrs Saddeq is intent on projecting an image of the perfect family. So she trills over her husband’s every word and whips her sons and daughters into shape, forcing them into the stereotypes of perfect children: her sons are sent away to become doctors, her daughter to become good wives.

Perhaps the most compelling portion of the novel is a brief and thrilling few chapters where the eldest daughter Mae, denied her dream of being a doctor like the boys, rebels by playing the role set down for so well that she briefly threatens to take unseat her mother’s place at the head of the household. Eventually, the coup fails and there’s no physical escape for Mae, who stays behind as all three of the others make good their escape, Sully to the U.S. and Jakie to the U.K. where he is followed eventually by Lana.

The rest of the book comprises their adventures in these countries and how each of them come to terms with their upbringing, and it becomes much more about the clash of an old way of living and a new.

Jakie is possibly the most successful, his relationship with Irishman Frank, while far from perfect, allowing him to express his compassionate side and cure his wounds with love, enchantingly portrayed by Farooki.

An improbable adoption of an abused Indian maid and her son by this homosexual couple – surely a hard arrangement to square with society in the 1980s? – and his charitable work in Pakistan further helps him heal.

For the women, the road is a much harder one. Both are trapped by marriages, and yet they eventually do escape in their own ways, the perfidy of their husband’s serving as reasons to leave. Lana eventually follows Jackie to London and establishes a life there.

Even though the subject is a tough one, the book is throughout as compelling as any airport page-turner, and almost worth reading for Farooki’s gorgeous imagery alone. She uses violent images to describe the most domestic of tasks, constantly jarring the reader out of their complacency.

Amma beat us ferociously, as though it was exercise, and something that she needed to stretch and limber up for in advance. Like a local lawman in the villages, charged with administering a hundred lashes to a young rape victim for her adultery.”

For a book that evocatively describes the hardships and injustice women face in society, both in Pakistan and beyond, it’s a pity that she doesn’t spend more time on It is unfortunate, then, that she appears to lose interest in the female half of her set of protagonists, spending a majority of time describing the lives of Sully and Jackie and the various people they meet, Irishman being the most compelling of the side characters.

Lana, and particularly Mae, don’t get this sort of special treatment even though they are arguably the more interesting characters whilst growing up.

It’s easy to get tired of Sully’s morbid and flawed introspection, and the reader has to exercise a large slice of suspension of disbelief when reading about Jakie’s life.The overall impression is of a muscular giant of a book in the making that runs out of steam halfway through the journey.

Farooki’s decision not to delve into arguably the books most interesting character – the mother – except in the most cursory manner, is another point for debate. Given the understanding she shows to almost all the other characters, surely a few chapters exploring her backstop wouldn’t go amiss?

But perhaps the book is the more effective for it. Once dissected, the monster becomes pitiable rather than fascinating. And that fascination is what gives The Good Children its tremendous energy.

The Good Children  (416 pages ) Published by Tinder Press

2016-06-12 09.47.42Abhinav Ramnarayan is a Journalist and Foreign Fiction Blogger 

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The Good Children -Roopa Farooki The Review

2am at the Cats Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

catspBertino`s book frankly was a delight to read from cover to cover with a story that frankly has you cheering and rooting for all her characters. Set in Philadelphia, its a tale about love and lost love, the city`s dreamers, and how sometimes the unwieldy ordinariness and seemingly clock-in and clock-out nature of the city can weigh you down.

The book charts one special Christmas Eve night when our characters through a wending of fate, all end up in the famous jazz club 2am at the Cats Pajamas run by its illustrious owner Jack Francis Lorca, who is considered one of the “finest ears in jazz” and has a certain cool sensibility with a rock and roll swagger and without doubt, a man who has hot-footed out of a few beds as well. Bertino captures the whole appeal of the club as a former celestial body where sun worshippers; musical hipsters and followers alike would all gravitate around; from its glory days to the present day, still going strong now but with a little less verve then its yesteryears. After an encounter with the local enforcement officer, Len Thomas one night, Lorca is issued with a citation with a litany of offences and a large fine to be paid. Can Lorca save the club from being closed down ?

We are also introduced to fifth grade teacher Sarina Greene. She has returned to Philly following a divorce and is invited to a dinner party,that sees her reunited with her old school crush. Will she find love again?

It`s a warm and fuzzy read that grabs you by the collar with great writing, characters beautifully drawn,and with lines that will have you laughing out loud. It is a pacey story that reads well and has a filmic quality about it. Each character`s story whilst connected in some way comes across as a wonderful series of well crafted vignettes which uses Philly as its backdrop.

Whilst there is no real protagonist, young Madeline Altimari, wannabe dancer and singer shimmys her way through the novel, a precocious child with a capital P. She is uber musically- aware with an inate ability to deliver the intricacies of a jazz tune. Just 9 going on 30, she betrays her years with a self discipline and a desire to learn her craft. Desperate to prove she is a better singer than grade-school rival, Clare Kelly she is spurred into action and decides she must take centre stage at the legendary jazz club 2am at The Cats Pajamas. Will she get to achieve her dream?

I loved the fact that Bertino doesn’t bend to the almost Disney- like representations of angelic, butter wouldn’t melt… representations of children in novels. Instead she delivers a character that frankly sings sassy (no pun attended), who can leave you reeling in paper-cuts with Madeline`s “gonna git you sucker” sharp shooting humour as well. “Madeline has no friends: Not because she contains a tender grace that fifth graders detect and loathe. Not because she has a natural ability that points her starward, though she does. Madeline has no friends because she is a jerk.” I defy even the more phlegmatic ones amongst you not to have Bertino make you want to high-five or even bear-hug Madeline.

Sure just as you double up with laughter, she writes lines that are sweet, never saccharine. We discover early on how Madeline`s mother, a former singer had died from cancer. After the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, she leaves behind a set of instructive notes for Madeline on the following; How to make a fist, How to write a thankyou note and on the rules of singing; Know yourself. Its the very rules that she lives by.

Marie Helene Bertino
Marie Helene Bertino
To say that Bertino knows how to deliver a good yarn is an understatement. Her novel will have you double-bending in laughs and then gives you literary bear-hugs with momentary splurges of tendernesss and sentimentality. Granted this is a book without the clever tectonics of a multi-layered plot but frankly it`s all heart with themes of love, wish fulfilment, and achieving the extra-ordinary in the face of the routine grind of the city ” As the local café owner and seemingly the heartbeat of the city`s neighbourhood; Mrs Santiago says; “Not today Philadelphia. Bring your sorry shit back tomorrow…”

2am at the Cats Pajamas by Helene Marie Bertino published by Picador.
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2am at the Cats Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

More or Less Asians? A debate on Stereotypes in Literature. An Asia House Event: The Review

Top Left to Right. Blogger and writer Anna Chen, Presenter Bidisha and Film maker Daniel York. Bottom Left to Right. Novelist Niven Govinden and Broadcaster Yasmeen Khan waxed lyrical on the night.
Top Left to Right. Blogger and writer Anna Chen, Presenter Bidisha and Filmmaker Daniel York. Bottom Left to Right. Novelist Niven Govinden and Broadcaster Yasmeen Khan waxed lyrical on the night.
Philip Chadha Founder of globooks.net which showcases the best in international fiction.
Philip Chadha Founder of globooks.net which showcases the best in international fiction.

Every once in while we have seminal moments in the arts and at times we return to seemingly well trodden roads and in particular the subject of stereotypes or in this case Asian stereotypes in literature, do they exist?

Are there more or less then before? It was the subject up for energetic debate at the recent event held at Asia House in London.

The debate provided a looking glass on the whole subject of Asian stereotypes in literature and gifted a moment of much needed reflection on the issue as the end of 2014 hurtles towards us.

GloBooks supported the sell-out event , attracting large numbers. Its topic clearly resonated  with the audience.
GloBooks supported the sell-out event , attracting large numbers. Its topic clearly resonated with the audience.
There was the ever clear and present danger of the event possibly rankling a few observers through heated debate and if you were of the persuasion that things were just fine and dandy then you were likely to have your quiet non-plussed persuasion punctured.This was not going to be BBC light entertainment fodder for Saturday night television by any standards. One was almost expecting effigy burning of every publisher who said no, every publisher who said maybe and every publisher who said could be. Forgive me though for a moment of jocularity. I thought it might make for a good diversionary tactic from being overly serious or being hangdog. However the inescapable fact is that even in a multicultural, multi-media liberal leaning 2014 Britain, we still need to debate and interrogate the whole idea of stereotypes in the arts and in particular in literature.Presenter Biddsha asked presenter Yasmin Khan just what stereotypes were expected of her during her professional life.
Presenter Bidisha presided over the proceedings.
Presenter Bidisha presided over the proceedings.
She recalls a production meeting and recounts what one programme commissioner apparently said to her during a meeting. The commissioner apparently told her “Its great that that you bring us stories but don’t feel that you cant bring other stuff, stories about your community..” and right there was the first seemingly outmoded word “community”. The idea of Asians being part of an all-embracing, homogenous community is undoubtedly an urban myth. The impression of Asians being representative of communities has always been around. How are Asians though by the very nature of the fact that we are Asian, somehow representative of all communities? Does that make us qualified to talk on ethnic matters ? possibly; to be somehow flag bearers for all things Asian or even standard- bearers possibly not, since the ethnic make-up of areas up and down the country are affected by a multitude of influences including political, social, cultural; socio-economic or otherwise.

So from a literature standpoint, its not difficult to be riled slightly, even for the more phlegmatic ones amongst us. Author on the panel niven Bidisha underscored the point of how there are certainly very familiar narratives in Asian fiction; the forced arranged marriage being the most popular one et al and possibly making the cosily more common stories more “publishable” then others. Govinden commented “If you are far more singular about your work then you don’t have to work in that way.” You might ask the genesis of stereotypes in literature normally is with the very publishers themselves, leading one to think that there are not enough ethnic minorities within the publishing industry. Niven revealed how the trade publication The Bookseller did a follow-up to a study done a decade ago, highlighting the problem of a lack of ethnic minorities in the publishing industry and guess what? Things have not changed a decade later. Just what are the concrete things that need to be done asked presenter Bidisha. According to Niven “It begins at university and encouraging more people who are about to graduate to join the industry.”

Frankly if that didn’t get your jowls jarring, then there is the slightly noxious combination of literary fiction and seemingly colonial or genre based Asian stereotypes. Whilst it could be vigorously argued that the South Asian fiction panorama is very much alive and kicking with Jhumpa Lahiri`s The Lowlands.lowlands and Neel Mukherjee`s The Lives of OthersNEEL shortlisted for 2013 and 2014 Booker Prize respectively. According to Niven however, there is an inherent risk of writers simply comforming to a set of literary rules or a genre, just to make their book publishable.”The danger is that you don`t nurture the development of writers who work outside the tradition. Its not challenging work. Its an easy sell. If you spend the kind of attention on writing different kinds of work, you have a far more interesting landscape.”

Asia House Literature Festival Organiser Jemimah Steinfield. “More or Less Asian was a lively and thoroughly enjoyable event. Led by Bidisha, the panellists presented a disparate and interesting range of views, raising important issues in terms of identity and creativity in the UK today."
Asia House Literature Festival Organiser Jemimah Steinfield. “More or Less Asian was a lively and thoroughly enjoyable event. Led by Bidisha, the panellists presented a disparate and interesting range of views, raising important issues in terms of identity and creativity in the UK today.”
My fear is that in satisfying the commercial whims of certain publishers who like theatre producers need to get bums on seats,like film makers need to shift cinema tickets; writers might be implicitly expected to produce stories that use cosily familiar stereotypical images that lets face it sell. Historical, political stories with high drama and tension- fuelled communal relations might be exquisitely written and deemed Booker prize worthy, but it might be argued are they really examples of fresh, challenging fiction?

Perhaps that`s a debate for another time. Yet its not all literary doom and gloom. Hope does spring eternal. There are books that are challenging that romanticised, chocolate box image of South Asian writing with redefining work that delivers a big fat Glasgow kiss so the charming expression goes, to all stereotyped or genre based fiction. Deepa Kapoor`s Bad Character was in my mind, a game-changer of a novel with its story turning the image of the young stay-at- home Asian woman on its head and presents an uncompromising image of the under-belly of Delhi.

Deepti  Kapoor`s first novel Bad Character
Deepti Kapoor`s first novel Bad Character
We now need a new generation of authors to rewrite the rules on South Asian literature with exciting and enduring stories that give stereotypes a wide berth.
Marvel-logo-oficial Like a band of literary iconoclasts, ridding the publishing world of trite stereotypes and protecting challenging literature, super heroes to rival even Marvel,s finest, we will hopefully have novels that are a rollicking good read, bring in the greenbacks and challenge hackneyed literary characters in the process. Now wouldn’t that be a marvel ?

All The Days and Nights Published by The Friday Project and Bad Character published Jonathon Cape Random House are both out now.

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More or Less Asians? A debate on Stereotypes in Literature. An Asia House Event: The Review