For a parent, there’s no greater nightmare than the loss of a child. Amanda, the young mother at the heart of FEVER DREAM, Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s first novel and English-language debut, lives in constant fear that her connection with her daughter Nina will be severed. She is obsessed with what she calls the “rescue distance” --- the space between herself and her daughter at any moment --- and the “invisible thread” that ties them together, a rope “so taut now I feel it in my stomach.”
When this deceptively simple book (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell) opens, Amanda is lying in a hospital, likely dying, and having a conversation with a strange child named David. David is fixated on helping Amanda “find the exact moment” when everything went wrong --- it has, he explains, something to do with worms. Gradually, under David’s insistent, impatient questioning (“That is not important,” he interjects whenever he feels Amanda losing focus), she tells him a story about Carla, a neighbor at her vacation home, and her son.
"Schweblin slowly and carefully dials up the feeling of panic, unease and fear, and the slim, chapter-less novel is best read in a single sitting, so as not to break the weird spell she weaves."
Amanda recounts Carla’s story of how her child, David, was poisoned after drinking water from a tainted stream. Desperate to save him, Carla takes David to a folk healer who offers to move the child’s spirit to another body. “The transmigration would take David’s spirit to a healthy body, but it would also bring an unknown spirit to the sick body…he wouldn’t be the same anymore.” The “new David” Carla takes home after the procedure is a “monster,” an eerie changeling who is covered in spots, whose way of speaking is strange and who takes to burying dead animals in the backyard.
Why is David now sitting on a bed in an emergency clinic talking to Amanda? What disaster sent Amanda to the hospital in the first place? And most importantly, where is Nina? Schweblin uses an intricate, multilayered form of storytelling to guide us to the answers. David wants to control the narrative, asking leading questions and admonishing Amanda to pay attention to certain details. Amanda has her own questions she wants answered, and she sometimes resists David’s agenda as she struggles to tell both her story and Carla’s. “I can see the story perfectly,” she tells David, “but sometimes it’s hard to move forward.”
The result is a creepy and unsettling fairy tale, a story of the complex, intimate relationship between mothers and children and the mysterious, terrifying dangers of the outside world. The poison that sickens the original David is never fully explained. At first, it seems to well up from the earth itself, but the barrels full of an unnamed substance Amanda sees workers unloading suggest a manmade toxin is to blame. “We’re in the country, there are sown fields all around us. People come down with things all the time and even if they survive they end up strange,” Carla tells Amanda.
Whatever the source, the poison has overwhelmed the small town where Amanda and her daughter came to escape the grit and grime of the city. What should have been a refuge from a chaotic world becomes an uncanny, hallucinatory landscape, as Amanda, initially skeptical of Carla’s insistence that her son is not really her son, gradually succumbs to anxiety and dread.
In FEVER DREAM, Schweblin slowly and carefully dials up the feeling of panic, unease and fear, and the slim, chapter-less novel is best read in a single sitting, so as not to break the weird spell she weaves. The unexpected ending manages to be both deeply unsettling and oddly touching, a fitting conclusion to a story about the powerful bond between mothers and their children.
Reviewed by Megan Elliott on January 13, 2017