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When I cracked open Fever Dream at gone midnight a few weeks ago, I had no idea this freaky little novel by Samanta Schweblin – almost a novella, really – was a tale of psychological eco-horror, one that would proved both gripping and frustratingly ambiguous in equal measure.
We open on narrator Amanda on her death bed in a hospital room, accompanied by a young boy called David. As the blurb reads: “She’s not his mother. He’s not her child.” Amanda is, in fact, mother to a daughter called Nina, while David’s mother is the gold bikini-wearing Carla. Over the next 100 or so pages, an eerily lucid David prompts the dying and disoriented Amanda to delve into her memory and recall the recent trauma that’s led her to this hospital, by way of a frenzied, sometimes repetitive dialogue in which stories are told and then retold, framed and reframed. Worms are also a thing.
Originally published in Spanish as Distancia de rescate in 2014, Fever Dream was the first of acclaimed Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s titles to receive the English translation treatment and it’s effectively sinister; I gobbled up in little over an hour. If anything, it’s a novel that demands to be read in one sitting, as Schweblin conjures up such an unrelenting, suffocating sense of dread that you’re left with no choice but to keep reading. But I want to pause and touch on Megan McDowell’s clever take on the title for a second.
While “distancia de rescate” (“rescue distance”) is a concept woven throughout the text, McDowell reconfigured the title to Fever Dream in the English. This works on levels which the Spanish original does not; not only does it hint at the feverish sickness which dominates the plot, it also plays on the idea that everything contained within is a nightmare – read: an unreality – of fever dream proportions. This added layer of interpretation gifted by McDowell to English-language readers sums up the complexities and joys of reading in translation; each iteration adds a new layer to the existing text, which, to my mind, can only be a good thing. (I reject the Guardian reviewer’s assertion that the Spanish-language title is “better”.)
(Update: Oops! Turns out Megan McDowell had nothing to do with the title change. My bad.)
However, while the cleverly-translated Fever Dream is deliciously creepy throughout, the muddled, crisscrossed structure of the narrative itself – a boy talking to a woman who’s not his mother about her daughter and his actual mother – is the major downfall of the novel for me. Confusing and ambiguous, I regularly found myself having to stop and mentally refresh: ‘Who’s talking to who and about who again?’ I struggled to sift through Amanda and David’s muddy back and forth, which – despite Schweblin’s well-paced and captivating premise – regularly took me out of the story.
Still, I appreciated Schweblin’s incorporation and creepification (or not?) of Argentina’s ongoing ecological crisis. Even if you’re unaware of the situation in Argentina (as I was), the underlying critique of extractivist agriculture measures which have poisoned the water supply in a rural community are far from obscured. And yet…even the underlying eco-horror critique, compelling plot and pervasive sense of dread can’t redeem the, frankly, disappointing ending. While I won’t reveal what happens, suffice to say Schweblin spends 100+ pages accumulating momentum only to end on a disjointed, anticlimactic note.
A bit like this review.
Buy Distancia de rescate: Bookshop.org (US)
About Samanta Schweblin
Samanta Schweblin (Buenos Aires, 1978) is a short story writer and novelist who has been twice nominated for the Man Booker International Prize. She’s the author of five books at the time of writing.