Book Review: Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
by Helen Maimaris
Though Samanta Schweblin has previously published three short story collections, Fever Dream is her first novel—and her English-language debut. Granta named Schweblin one of the “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” and the originality of this novel makes it easy to see why. Schweblin’s narrative—and her storytelling—are so gripping that I read Fever Dream in one sitting.
The novel consists of a single, long conversation between two characters. No chapters. No breaks of any kind. A woman lies in the dark, suffering from some kind of illness, talking to a child who we quickly learn is not her own—and who is also sick. There is a struggle for narrative control between these two characters. David, the child, is interrogating Amanda, pushing her to recall the events of the last few days in order to “find the exact moment when the worms came into being,” steering her focus with his monotonous retorts of “That’s not important” or “That doesn’t matter.” Schweblin maintains a deft control of time as we shift back and forth through Amanda’s recent memories, searching for that moment—sometimes even within the space of a paragraph. Questions bubble in the reader’s mind: how did this situation come about, what are the worms, what exactly is going on?
It quickly becomes evident that the town in which Amanda and her young daughter, Nina, are vacationing has been pervaded by something nightmarish. The children are “strange,” “deformed,” and “their skin is pink, very pink, and scaly too.” We begin to understand, rather than know, that there is some connection between these “worms” and Amanda’s sick state. Something in the water perhaps, in the fields. Alongside the wonderful current of magical realism running through the story (for example, the matter-of-fact existence of the town’s healer who can perform “migrations”—dividing a being’s spirit across various bodies), there is also the building unease of something else, the sense of an ecological horror, and it is this element that makes the novel particularly chilling. Swap the soy fields of rural Argentina for the most prolific crop in any given place and the same events could occur anywhere.
The dialogic structure recalls the style of another Argentine writer: Manuel Puig. A central figure of the Latin American Boom, Puig’s novels—with their script-like form—blurred the line between prose fiction and the cinematic. It is easy to imagine watching Puig’s characters on stage or on film, and the same is true of Fever Dream—it would simply require two actors and one set. This form, combined with the drip-feed of unsettling details, draws the reader into the story. For the first couple of pages the reader is a mere eavesdropper, listening in on the exchange between two people; but quickly the reader is moving through time, reliving Amanda’s memories, experiencing her emotions. A sick menace starts to build, and the reader feels unsettled by something they cannot place their finger on, cannot crystallize enough to understand, and there the reader is: invested in the heart of the action, trapped within the story’s horror and discomfort.
Besides the skillfully crafted form, chilling narrative, and deft control of time, Schweblin’s economy of language and use of perfect, precise details further demonstrate her technical prowess. The novel contains no purple prose, no elaborate seduction of the reader’s attention. Instead, there is an evocation of the smallest details, spot-on sensory observations, and true-to-life idiosyncrasies: the “perfumed green” of the soy fields, Nina’s endearing habit of speaking in the plural (“We adore this”), and the near constant tug of the maternal “rescue distance”—Amanda’s continual calculation of how far she can move away from Nina without feeling a tightening in her stomach, pulling her back. And all this is achieved within a remarkably short space: in translation, Fever Dream runs to a total of 183 pages.
Fever Dream is a minimalist, complex, absorbing work of fiction. If you don’t stay for the sheer skill of the storytelling, the prickling, unsettling sense of unease that suffuses this novel is sure to take a hold of you, grip you vice-like within the action, until you’ve read the very last word.