If it wasn’t for the fact that I want this review to sit alongside its fellows on the Man Booker International shortlist, I would be holding off until Halloween. From witchcraft to pollution, from deserted hospitals to unexpected personality shifts in children, it is quite remarkable how many truly terrifying ideas Schweblin explores in the 150 pages of ‘Fever Dream.’
The set up is as confusing and disorienting as the title suggests. Two people are having a conversation in one is being encouraged to remember the immediate past as a matter of urgency. Lurking within her story will be the clue to whatever tragedy has created this situation, but between fear, illness and confusion the resulting story is fragmented and disjointed. We know that our main narrator’s daughter, Nina, could be in serious danger and that her questioner might be able to help her if he can get hold of the important details. As Amanda’s narrative continues, we become chillingly aware that whatever is wrong goes beyond the rational:
I take a few more steps toward the kitchen and I see that my husband is there, sitting across the table from Nina. It’s an impossible image – how could he have come in without my hearing him? He’s not supposed to be here until the weekend. I lean against the doorway. Something’s happening, something’s happening, I tell myself, but I’m still half asleep. He has his hands folded on the table, he’s leaning towards Nina and looking at her with his brow furrowed.
Then he looks at me.
“Nina has something to tell you,” he says.
But Nina looks at her father and copies the position of his hands on the table. She doesn’t say anything.
“Nina …” says my husband.
“I’m not Nina,” says Nina.
She leans back and crosses one leg over the other in a way I have never seen her do before.
“Tell your mother why you aren’t Nina,” says my husband.
“It’s an experiment, Miss Amanda,” she says, and she pushes a can towards me.
My husband takes the can and turns it so I can see the label. It’s a can of peas of a brand I don’t buy, one I would never buy. They’re a bigger, much harder kind of pea than what we eat, coarser and cheaper. A product I would never choose to feed my family with, and that Nina can’t have found in our cupboards. On the table, at that early-morning hour, the can has an alarming presence. This is important, right?
This is very important.
And so the story continues, increasingly creepy details hinting at a collapse of the soul, the family unit, even the whole country. The original title of the novel is ‘Distancia de Rescate’, or ‘rescue distance,’ the constantly changing distance between mother and daughter, within which is safety and outside of which is any danger beyond the parent’s protection. Weaving its way fluidly between maternal love and society’s deepest fears ‘Fever Dream’ is as impressive as it is ambitious. This is the kind of writing I hope to discover through translation prizes and I am thrilled that the Man Booker International judges have introduced me to such a new, compelling author.