The title Fever Dream piques interest—that hot-and-cold, frenzied fantastical experience, what would a book with that name encapsulate?
While searching for translated works in the horror genre to read during October this year, I first discovered the 2014 novel Fever Dream, written by Samanta Schweblin and translated to English by Megan McDowell, and I was likewise intrigued to read it.
Only about 150 pages, this book is narrated from the perspective of a woman named Amanda, who converses with a young boy after she regains some level of consciousness in a hospital bed. She doesn’t know this boy or quite how she came to be in this hospital, but he urges her to remember at what point she began feeling “the worms” within her, presumably the moment that led to her hospitalization.
As I gently lowered myself into the atmosphere of this book, I was immediately distrustful of Amanda and the boy. His remarks are italicized and the hospital setting is murky; their exchange is like talking heads excluded of any surrounding. Can the reader really trust what either of them are saying, experiencing? Are either of them experiencing hallucinations, fantasies? Like looking through a tunnel, we follow Amanda’s perspective into the past, recounting the last week’s events with more clarity.
Its structure is a continuous form, devoid of chapters or breaks, and so in many ways, this is quite a compelling read. Fortunately I was able to read it in one sitting—otherwise I’d have been hard pressed to find a stopping place—but the pacing fluctuates between the high tension of their dialogue and Amanda’s lengthy flashbacks. At some times, I felt on the brink of important discovery during the two voices’ exchange, the next, not quite having found my answers but settling back in my chair as Amanda grapples to continue her story.
Although I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book, I believe I had anticipated it to be a thriller; however, if you are going to read this book, you should know that it’s not. Fever Dream is mostly horror and psychological fiction, and while there is a lot of unsettling imagery and ominous activity, it’s actually quite mild compared to other horror novels. Not to say that it’s not scary in its own handful of ways, but it is not scary in the conventional aspects of popular horror novels.
Nevertheless, many sources remark that this book draws inspiration from the environmental issues in Argentina, which is a horrifying prospect in and of itself. When one considers how pesticides can gravely contaminate drinking water, much light is shed on this book’s message.
One of the more dynamic elements of the story was the concept of the “rescue distance” which Amanda discusses, which describes the amount of space she can allow between her and her young daughter in order to properly protect her from harm. On page 36, she elaborates that in new settings, the “invisible thread” between them is often quite short, until they are both more comfortable with their environment and her daughter can be trusted with a bit more independence.
I found the rescue distance to be a great addition to this story. Although I’ve never been a parent, I can empathize with this instinctual drive to protect a loved one, and parenting emerges as a strong theme in Fever Dream, unexpectedly yet poignantly.
While I appreciate the book’s form, I found that the child’s role in the conversation was often quite conflicting or pointless, as he is constantly remarking, “That’s not important,” after prompting Amanda to divulge information. Amanda’s side of the narration is so heavy that the boy often fades away from the focus, and his interjections sometimes waste more time than if he would just let her speak, despite his haste. However, ultimately, I think the boy’s presence is what makes this book so initially compelling and the ending so thought-provoking.
The ending has an unresolved nature that left me grappling for explanations and I felt unclear on whether to attest that to my own shortcomings as an astute reader or if the novel was intentionally left up to reader interpretation. Ultimately, as I haven’t reread this book yet, I cannot quite make this call even a month after having read it. Even though I am able to rationalize most of what occurred, I still feel doubtful of my own conclusions, and I wonder if other readers also experience something like this upon finishing it.
Certainly, it is well-written and the story is intriguing and multi-faceted. It is an evocative piece of work that many have praised and others have felt underwhelmed by. I believe that people who enjoy an ambiguous story will love this, but readers who prefer a well-rounded, complete story may be lukewarm with this novel. It is quite a fever dream—it is muddled, erratic, and unsettling. More than just a story, it is an experience, galloping towards its uneasy conclusion.
Fever Dream was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017.
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