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Book review: Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream is a tour de force of sublime malevolence

A dying woman tries to recall the series of events that have led to her hospital bed as menace grips the narrative and won’t let go. The reader will find it difficult to awake from Fever Dream.
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin is published by Riverhead.
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin is published by Riverhead.

In the early pages of this strange and beautifully arresting novel by the prize-winning Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin, Amanda – the book’s principal narrator lies immobile and dying in a rural hospital ward.

“This isn’t normal, David,” she says to the boy who may be present at her side. “There’s only darkness, and you’re talking into my ear. I don’t even know if this is really happening.” “It’s happening, Amanda”, replies David (whose remarks all appear in italics). “I’m kneeling at the edge of your bed, in one of the rooms at the emergency clinic. We don’t have much time, and before time runs out we have to find the exact moment.”

The moment to which David is referring to is the point in Amanda’s life at which her death would become inevitable. In an effort to identify it, he has her relate the series of apparently-recent events that have propelled her into her current terminal condition.

The work that results from this undertaking, elegantly translated by Megan McDowell, takes the form of an unconventional and dreamlike dialogue in which Amanda, at David’s prompting, attempts to recount an afternoon that she spent with his mother, Carla, at a holiday home. Amanda can envision the details of this episode with clarity. She recalls seeing her daughter, Nina, cradling a stuffed mole. She remembers the straps of Carla’s gold bikini; her “forehead leaning against the steeringwheel” of a car she is unable to drive. She imagines “large plastic buckets of water” and glasses of iced tea.

But on these bright, and brightly haunting, details, she struggles to impose order: “I’m stuck”, she tells David. “I can see the story perfectly, but sometimes it’s hard to move forward.” And when she finds it impossible to proceed, she drifts into meditations on her current condition: “I’m going to die in a few hours. That’s going to happen, isn’t it? It’s strange how calm I am. Because even though you haven’t told me, I know. And still, it’s an impossible thing to tell yourself.”

David responds to Amanda’s faltering attempts to tell her tale with chillingly laconic and affectless interjections: “None of this is important. We’re wasting time.” “What else is happening in the yard?” “Keep going, don’t forget the details.”

These demands result in the emergence of the vague outline of a narrative, but it is not the one, or not the only one, David wants to hear. For in the course of her reminiscing, Amanda revisits a conversation with Clara in which Clara explains why, for years, she has been terrified of her own son, who six years earlier was poisoned by a local stream while out looking for his father’s missing stallion; was subsequently taken to see a mysterious woman in a greenhouse who claimed to be able to save him by separating his soul from his body and migrating it to another host; and who seems to be able to kill animals merely by looking at them.

With this strand of her fiction in place, Schweblin’s creation becomes even more shifting, elusive and menacing. It is seldom clear who David is, and from whose body he is speaking (at times he seems to bleed in and out of Amanda’s daughter, Nina); remembered events unfold with malarial incoherence (Schweblin’s creation is full of temporal and topographical disruptions); and there exists a pervasive and growing sense of danger and toxicity.

The town and its populace seem “cursed” (David’s word) by ecological disaster; Amanda is consumed to the point of neurosis by the idea of “rescue distance” – shorthand for her habit of constantly calculating how far she is from her daughter and how long it would take to save her from danger. And throughout, there is a persistent return to a motif – that of “the worms” – whose significance is never spelt out, but seems to relate to each of the maladies that waft through Amanda’s reveries.

This might give the impression that Fever Dream is a demanding and frustrating affair. But Schweblin’s sublime command of form, together with the power, restraint and precision of her prose, result in a work of almost fathomless intellectual and psychological richness that unfolds with the compulsiveness of a thriller.

While Amanda edges inexorably towards her death, the idea that we can protect the people we love comes to look increasingly fragile. And as it does so, the carefully modulated force of Schweblin’s writing orchestrates a crescendo of emotional intensity that leaves you feeling cathartically enervated, yearning for talk, but “immobile in the languid silence”.

Matthew Adams is a regular contributor to The Review.

Updated: January 12, 2017 04:00 AM

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