Fever Dream (2014): Samanta Schweblin


Sometimes you feel you’ve completely missed something. You end up suspecting there was a big revelation in the final pages that you completely overlooked and which would have made everything make sense. I feel that may have been the case here, so I’m hoping we can get into a discussion in the comments about exactly what was going on. Schweblin’s novella unfolds in the course of a single unbroken, breathless dialogue. Here is Amanda, lying in the dark in a hospital bed, running out of time. Here, at her side, is David, a young boy who keeps probing her with ruthless questions. They have to find something among the confused tangle of Amanda’s memories: a clue; a moment that will bring everything into focus. But what has happened to Amanda? And who is David?

The story unspools and deposits us back at the beginning: a vacation house; a hot, lazy summer; two neighbouring mothers and their children striking up a tentative friendship. But Clara, from over the road, seems to be half-distracted and plagued by uneven moods. One day, she makes a shocking confession to Amanda. Her son, David, is not her son. His body is that of her son. But what lives within him is no longer her own David. And Amanda is pulled in to a bizarre tale of sickness and recovery that seems to flaunt the boundaries of the possible. Is Clara simply unhinged by grief or guilt over her son’s illness? Possibly. But the more she hears, the more Amanda is unnerved. She’s worried about the safety of her little girl Nina. And presently, when she finds David himself inside her house, she decides that it’s time to leave. But perhaps it’s already too late.

From this point onward, there are spoilers because I’m not entirely sure what actually happens in this book and I’d appreciate the chance to ask questions of anyone who might understand better than me. If David is such a terrifying presence to Amanda, how do they become allies of a sort in the clinic? If David is evil – rather than the proof of evil – why is he so desperate to find that particular moment; that tipping point? And what significance does that moment have? We find ourselves seeking after it for the whole book but, once it’s signalled, it doesn’t seem to mean anything to Amanda, nor could I see why it was so important and what it revealed. Am I being extraordinarily dense? What is the wetness on the grass that seems to incubate the fever passed to Amanda and Nina? It must be the same thing that was also in the water of the stream that infected David. And is it significant that there are always two victims – the horse and David; Amanda and Nina – and that the child survives while the other is sacrificed in some way?

The book is aptly titled. There are sequences here that feel nightmarish; hallucinatory: that parade of disfigured children which blocks the passage of Amanda’s car, for example, or the dying stallion surrounded by men. It probably wasn’t a good idea to read this straight after Slade House, but the juxtaposition brought to light some powerful shared themes. Both books are about being trapped in some kind of unreliable reality, at the mercy of some greater power. It’s never clear in Fever Dream what exactly that power is. Is it David? If so, why is he so insistent that Amanda seek back through her memories for that moment? Or is it a larger, amorphous kind of power: the nameless, almost undefinable evil that seems to hang over the town? Is this evil natural, supernatural or manmade? There’s a lot of emphasis on the farming in the region and I wondered if it was meant to be linked somehow to pesticides, poisons seeping into the earth and the streams and deforming the next generation. But then, that doesn’t explain all the business about the woman in the green house and the ‘migrations’.

So come on, bookworms of the world. Explain to me what I’ve missed. Let’s try and tease out some of these questions. And there are more, of course. Is Clara really the innocent, victimised mother of a child with a stolen soul? Or does she have some deeper role to play? Could she actually be allied with this dark power? It’s Clara, after all, who shows such a sinister interest in Nina; who murmurs that she’d love to have had a daughter like her; and who takes the decision to ‘migrate’ Nina while Amanda is in the clinic. And I assume that it’s Nina behind David’s eyes in the final sequence when, desperately trying to prove her identity, she climbs into Amanda’s husband’s car and reaches for her mole toy. But where has David gone? Is he only present as a ‘spirit’ to Amanda? It doesn’t seem so. She sees him; she feels him move, and he guides her around. So whose body is he in? And then what do the final lines mean? Is Amanda’s husband doomed to be stuck in this town as well, sucked in by the darkness? Is this place so evil that, once you’ve been there, you can’t be allowed to escape? Does time itself stretch, to keep you trapped?

Yes, it’s mind-scrambling, it’s creepy and the English translation by Megan McDowell flows easily, with an urgent underlying pace like a heartbeat speeding up under your hand. But I just don’t quite understand the effusive comments on the book jacket. Am I going wrong in wanting it to mean anything at all? Should I just be content to wander in this weird half-light of a novella without really feeling sure about anything? Is that part of the point? Please someone, help me out here. Enlighten me! Or share your own bafflement (I’m reassured to see, from LibraryThing, that I’m not the only one who’s totally bewildered). Working together, we might be able to claw something more solid out of this intriguing, unsettling and fundamentally very confusing story.

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