Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, ‘Fever Dream’ by Samanta Schweblin tells the story of Amanda, a woman who is critically ill in a rural Argentinian hospital, where David is trying to get her to remember the events which led her there. She recalls encounters with her daughter Nina and David’s mother Carla who once told her how David’s soul was split in two in order to save him after he was poisoned. However, David is not quite the same afterwards, and neither are Amanda and Nina.
‘Fever Dream’ is very short and can easily be read in under two hours which is just as well because, unusually for me, I have had to read it twice in order to review it. I don’t think I absorbed it properly the first time round but then I’m still not entirely sure I did the second time either. The structure broadly consists of two overlapping conversations – one in the present between Amanda and David as he urges her to remember specific events, and one in the past as Amanda recalls what happened to her, Carla and Nina. David repeatedly tells Amanda to stop dwelling on what he believes are irrelevant details which increases the sense of urgency and dread. However, Amanda’s deteriorating health and confused memories (if that is indeed what they are) leaves almost everything open to interpretation.
If my description of ‘Fever Dream’ so far sounds a bit weird and incoherent, that’s because it is a pretty weird and incoherent book. While there is an underlying menace throughout, the story is never quite what it seems and as the different strands overlap, the narrative becomes increasingly shapeless with recurring images resembling an inescapable nightmare, which eventually offers some possible clues as to what caused the poisoning. One of the most compelling images Amanda repeatedly refers to is the “rescue distance” between her and Nina by which she means the distance from which a mother can pull her child back to safety away from a dangerous situation. Although ‘Fever Dream’ is difficult to categorise thematically with so little certainty in terms of what is real and what isn’t, paranoia is undoubtedly a key element and Schweblin portrays this motif of all-consuming maternal love very effectively.
Disorientating and profoundly unsettling, ‘Fever Dream’ probably isn’t for everyone but for true originality alone, it really ought to be a contender for the upcoming Man Booker International Prize longlist which I will be shadowing again this year. Many thanks to Oneworld Publications for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.