Fiction – hardcover; Oneworld; 151 pages; 2017. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Take a handful of suspense, mix it with a dash of horror and pepper it with enough octane to fuel a small fire. The result? Samantha Schweblin’s experimental novella Fever Dream.
The story is told in dialogue between two characters called Amanda and David, who may be mistaken for mother and son, but they are not related.
Amanda is lying in a hospital bed and is on the brink of dying, while David sits beside her and quizzes her about the events leading up to her hospitalisation. What ensues is a fast-paced and rather strange tale, which has a powerful and shocking twist right at the very end.
Caught up in a nightmare
Fever Dream is aptly named because reading it is akin to being caught up in an illogical dream. Initially, the conversation between Amanda and David is hard to follow. It’s so choppy and disorienting that only the formatting of the text — italic for David’s voice, normal for Amanda’s — helps the reader navigate their urgent chat.
It’s urgent because Amanda is dying and David is keen to discover “the exact moment when the worms come into being”. It’s not clear whether the worms are figurative or real, but as the story comes to life it begins to make more sense.
David, it turns out, was accidentally poisoned six years earlier. His mother was so desperate to save his life she entered into an arrangement with a local woman who could perform miracles: she sent David’s soul into another person’s body so he wouldn’t die.
Amanda knows this has happened, because David’s mother, Carla, told her about it, albeit reluctantly:
“If I tell you”, she says, “you won’t want him to play with Nina [Amanda’s young daughter].”
“But Carla, come on, how could I not want that.”
“You won’t, Amanda,” she says, and her eyes fill with tears. […] “He was mine. Not anymore.”
I look at her, confused.
“He doesn’t belong to me anymore.”
“Carla, children are forever.”
“No, dear,” she says. She has long nails, and she points at me, her finger level with my eyes.
A building sense of dread
As the conversation between Amanda and David develops over time the reader begins to feel a building sense of dread. It’s a horror story like no other, for Fever Dream does not follow the normal conventions of the genre. (In that sense it reminded me a little of Ian Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things.)
On the surface everything appears normal — Amanda and her daughter go on holiday, they befriend Carla and her son — but then there’s a dramatic shift in mood. It’s never quite clear whether Carla’s story is even true, but it has such an effect on Amanda that a level of paranoia develops. It’s like being told you’re living in a haunted house; suddenly you see ghosts everywhere.
Schweblin, who was chosen by Granta as one of the 22 best writers in Spanish under the age of 30, is very good at playing on fears — especially between mothers and their children. There’s a recurring motif throughout, that of the “rescue distance” that Amanda describes as “the variable distance separating me from my daughter”. It’s something she’s constantly calculating so that if anything happens to Nina she can be within striking distance to save her.
Carla, too, is so enamoured of her son she will do anything to protect him — even if that means selling his soul to keep him alive.
There are other recurring motifs — racehorses, a gold bikini and a stuffed toy mole — but what they mean is anybody’s guess.
Indeed, you could assign that same argument to the novella itself. It’s a wonderfully absurd and surreal tale, but there’s so much going on in it only the canniest of readers will understand it all. I read it in one sitting and find myself still trying to unpick it a week later…