Fever Dream is the first book that I am reading for my World of Books project. Samanta Schweblin is an Argentinian-born writer who now lives in Berlin, and this is her first novel. I found this book on Ann Morgan’s blog, and while it doesn’t appear to be set in any particular country, there is a definite South American feel to the described landscapes and people.
You are not likely to read very far in Fever Dream if you have children and are incapable of separating your own experiences from those of Amanda, the story’s narrator. Horror novels, a category that Fever Dream falls into, are made ever-more terrifying by either the presence of children in danger, or by children becoming the danger (and not, as is commonly thought, from the inclusion of evil clowns). This one has both, and even as a reader who can usually separate himself from events in a story, I found myself chilled at the thought of what Amanda and Carla, another parent in the story, had to experience. I might not have understood their plight a year ago before I brought my own progeny screaming into the world. The idea of something you love so dearly, that you would protect at the expense of anything else, being threatened was not something I had any reference for before my kid arrived. Parental fear is what makes Fever Dream so frightening.
The story is told by Amanda, who relates the events of a short period of time to a boy named David. This gives Fever Dream both a first person viewpoint and a second person, almost stream-of-consciousness, aura of experimentation. David will interrupt on occasion to ask Amanda questions, propelling her along as she often wanders or repeats aspects of the story that David claims to have already heard. This form of storytelling is akin to a police interrogation because it is very one-sided and extremely confessional. We have very little idea at the start of who David is, and indeed the opening of the book is wholly confusing. Once the rhythm is established, however, it is very difficult to put Fever Dream down, and I read the last three-quarters in one sitting.
Part of what makes Schweblin’s novel so engaging is her ability to hold a reader in a constant state of tension. We know something is going to happen to Amanda’s child at some point. This fact is revealed early, as is Amanda’s emotional state because of that event, but somehow Schweblin manages to keep the tension present throughout the entire story. Usually, authors must have a rise and fall pattern – moments of great tension interspersed with lulls in the action. Fever Dream is one long moment of anxiety that never lets up, and it is only due to the relatively short length of the book that it is even possible to read.
Fever Dream asks some thoughtful questions while it’s trying to convince parents to keep their children in a bacteria-free vacuum. As with any good horror novel, there is a sense of the supernatural at work. Carla, who we find out is David’s mother, has dealings with a woman who can transfer souls from one body to another. This asks the question: are we our bodies or our souls? Can one body share two souls, or parts of different souls? To some, the idea of this may be just as frightening as death, and Schweblin counts on that fear.
Part of me wishes that Fever Dream were more distinctly Argentinian, but I only want this for the selfish reasons of wishing to learn more about the country. This book is likely set in Argentina, where horse-breeding is such a tradition that it probably makes it into most of their novels (as it does in this one), but the locale is never said outright. This might have been my only issue with Schweblin’s first novel, and it’s an insignificant one in light of her obvious literary talent and ability to scare the hell out of me. Read at your own risk if you have children. This book will make you hug them tighter.