Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Title: Fever Dream
Author: Samanta Schweblin translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Genre: Horror, Literary Fiction
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publishing Year: 2017 (in English) 2014 (Originally)
Format Read: e-Book
My Rating: 4.5/5
If you were looking at “best of” and “must read” lists of books in 2017-18 you would be hard pressed not to come across a short (less than 200 pages) but powerful novel by Samanthan Schweblin. Fever Dream, a debut novel, received absolutely raving reviews from critics and readers alike. It bagged a Man Booker International shortlist nomination and won the 2018 Tournament of Books upsetting Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (largely considered the favorite). It has been hailed as “genius” and “terrifying”. Liberty Hardy from Book Riot has raved about it on multiple occasions.
All this praise is enough to make me pause, not because I think it would be a bad book but hype can easily turn to over-hype which can lead to disappointment for a book I would otherwise love. I’ve been there and it sucks. In most cases I prefer to let the hype die down and later enjoy the book on it’s own terms. Does any else do this? Finally, this year during #WomeninTranslationMonth (Schweblin is an Argentine writer writing in Spanish) I decided I was ready to dive into this book and to try to read it all in one go on my commute home. What resulted was one of the strangest, most unsettling, can’t-tear-my-eyes-away train rides ever (in a good way) and that is saying something as someone who rides the MTA frequently.
Summary: 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.
Let’s jump right in. This is a strange little book both in content and form. The narrative is framed as a dialogue between two people whose connection we learn more about as the story progresses. Amanda is a woman in an hospital room and is talking with David, a child who is not her son. We learn fairly early on that Amanda is gravely ill and is fast approaching death. David is urging her to tell him the story of the events leading up to her illness in hopes of finding something important in her memory that would provide a clue. The first half of the book follows a fairly linear style as we are introduces to supporting characters through Amanda's recollections including Amanda’s young daughter Nina and David’s mother, Carla. Around the halfway mark the narrative becomes increasingly erratic and non-linear as the full-effects of the mysterious illness befall Amanda and the pacing of the questioning by David becomes more urgent.
The books title Fever Dream is certainly apt in describing the experience of the protagonist as she approaches death and by extension the experience of the reader as we follow her progression. This is where the novel really shines: the atmosphere. The pacing of the back and forth between Amanda who is relating her story and David who is urging her on, insisting they are running out of time becomes a terrifying tempo that heightens the tension which only increases as we approach the end. As Amanda is narrating her thoughts and observations in the days leading to her illness in the first person it is so easy to slip into her shoes and feel the experience as if you were the one living it. The effect is simultaneously thrilling and immersive and a testament to Schweblin's incredible talent.
This book might not work for everyone. It is certainly a bit modernist and will leave readers who like neatly resolved endings unsatisfied. At the same time, it is not so avant-garde that readers who are not used to more experimental styles (myself included) would not be able to follow along while still stretching the edges of their comfort zone. When reflecting on whether I enjoyed the book after that train ride and I still don’t know if “enjoy” is the right word. I was fascinated, captivated, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away until the very heart pounding end and if that is not a sign of an excellent book I don't know what is.
Every book will illicit different reactions from different readers depending on their own preferences and triggers. This is especially true for this book as it's many layers make it ripe for speculation and interpretation. For example, It has been described as “truly chilling” by some readers but personally, I found it unsettling more than nightmare fuel however, I know my reaction to it would be different if I had children as it delves deeply into the darker side of mother/child relationships. Similarly, my main takeaway was a sharp critique of the effects of large-scale capitalist farming and its polluting effects on rural communities particularly children, but you might take away something else entirely. Honestly there are so many layers that you could peel back in this story. This, I believe is what has made this book so intriguing to so many readers; there are so many different layers to unpack and angles to explore. Ultimately it is a fascinating read that will reward multiple readings, interpretation and discussion and wholly worth the unnerving yet fantastic couple of hours you will spend tearing through this book.
Read if you like:
- No one easy answer
- That feeling of “oh-no-but-I-can’t-look-away”
- Creepy children