A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. Together, they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family.
Fever Dream is a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale. One of the freshest new voices to come out of the Spanish language and translated into English for the first time, Samanta Schweblin creates an aura of strange psychological menace and otherworldly reality in this absorbing, unsettling, taut novel.
Fever Dream crossed my radar thanks to being longlisted for the Man Booker International and for the intriguing start of its blurb; that first sentence really grabbed me, the way a good blurb ought to, and made me wonder what followed.
What follows is aptly titled, something of a fever dream of a narrative. Schweblin’s novella is a punctuated stream of consciousness, somewhere between monologue and conversation, as Amanda talks to David, occasionally being focused or redirected by the child; Fever Dream is entirely dialogue, but with nested dialogue as well, as Amanda recalls what brought her to this hospital bed speaking to David. It’s a style that has its problems – there are no good stopping points, so these 150 pages are best read in a single sitting – but the pacing really drives the reader on through the story.
The story of Fever Dream is like much of the best supernatural fiction: unclear whether it is in fact supernatural at all. Schweblin slowly adds further elements of the supernatural, the strange, the weird to the narrative, inserting them one at a time, rather than building a world in which these things are normal; and all those possibly supernatural elements could be purely natural, depending on our interpretation of them, and of events – Schweblin’s narrator(s) don’t allow us to really find that out, especially as both are, in their own ways, unreliable. What starts as a simple holiday that ended in tragedy (we know, after all, that Amanda is deathly ill from the start) becomes increasingly strange and off-kilter, and even small details that seem perfectly normal have inflated significance – the reader’s role in Fever Dream is partly to decide which of those inflations are because of the unreliability of the narrators, and which are actually the world; but also to try to read between the lines and see what is unsaid.
Fever Dream‘s prose is dreamlike and strange; the interjections from David, and exchanges about the present, change how we react to what we just read about the past, and what we’re about to read. Credit here must also go to McDowell, who translates the prose in a way that feels naturalistic; I don’t know the Spanish version, but the English version has a fantastic flow to it, a really pull. Individual phrases recur and are used to increasing poignancy in the novella, as they take on extra layers of significance as they’re referred to in the past or come up time and again in the present; this deploying of repetition as a motif really makes the whole thing feel, again, rather disconnected from reality, in a positive and powerful way.
The setting of Fever Dream furthers this sense of disconnection; Schweblin separates out what’s happening from the rest of the world by very rarely referencing it, rarely referencing what’s happening or even what happened outside the tight geography of the immediate, nonspecific area of the novel. It’s an interesting technique; a little more specificity and detail might have been nice, but on the other hand, the everyplace setting also feeds into the unreal and dreamlike atmosphere of the story in its own way.
Fever Dream is a strong novella; it could perhaps do with being a little shorter or more easily paused, but that’s a small criticism of this strange, creepy experience that Schweblin has created and McDowell has excellently translated.
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