Imagine: You’re on vacation. A retreat to a small town. You’re hoping to lounge around, and maybe go swimming with your daughter, an energetic young girl, Nina.
Suddenly, after a few odd run-ins with the locals, you’re not feeling so hot. You’re feverish, in fact; weak. Nina complains of feeling wobbly, too, a nightmare when your support system of family and doctors is out of reach. You decide to wait ― a mistake. You pass out, and when you wake up, you’re in a clinic, paralyzed.
Nina’s nowhere in sight. There’s no one around but a boy named David, who’s urgently asking you details about the past few days, what you remember, when the illness started.
The distressing setup of Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream ― her first novel, originally written in Spanish ― is only the beginning of an elliptical mystery that grows darker and hazier with each page. It’s a quick read that’ll leave you in a sweat, if not a panic. If you like your endings happy, or at least conclusive, the journey will be futile. But Fever Dream is worth reading for its inventiveness alone. Schweblin gives us memorable characters and a haunting parable, all in fewer than 200 short pages.
We learn, entirely through dialogue between Amanda, the bedridden mother, and David, the boy at her bedside, about the origin of the strange sickness. At the start of her vacation, Amanda met a harried woman, Carla, who tells her the story of her son. Years ago, when Carla’s husband bred horses, she was caring for both a rented stud and her son, David, then a toddler. At once, both David and the horse venture to drink from murky water on their land, and in trying to rescue them both, she fails to save either from contamination.
Both the horse and the boy get deathly ill, and Carla takes her son to visit the green house, a sort of alternative medicine center. There, a woman advises Carla to undergo a procedure that would split her son’s soul in two; he would never be wholly himself again, but he’d survive the infection. She agrees, although reluctantly, and afterward, she’s haunted by her son’s new appearance and demeanor. He’s covered in light spots. He’s found burying dead ducks in their backyard. To most questions, he issues the same droll response, “That’s not important.”
Whether David’s transformation is the result of a half-body transplant, or something more earthly, like post-traumatic stress, is left open for interpretation. So, too, is the otherworldly nature of the contaminant both David and Amanda are exposed to. “They’re like worms,” David explains in the book’s opening lines. But are they actual parasites, or is the wriggling bodily sensation a psychological one?
Schweblin never clarifies. The effect is that in her slim first novel, she taps into primal fears without ever naming them. The uncertainly is chilling, which is exactly the point.
One detail that is expanded on is Amanda’s treasured concept of the parental “rescue distance,” a metaphorical rope she imagines between herself and Nina, one she never wants to let slack. She keeps the distance between them taut, and when she feels it loosen, she positions herself closer to her daughter as she plays and wanders. In her conversation with David, he dwells on the idea. He indicates that rare moments of imperfect motherly care are what put both of them in this sickly condition. Or, is an obsession with safety ― helicopter parenting, essentially ― the true risk?
In the end, David takes measures to control his surroundings, while Schweblin does the opposite. She loosens the threads of her story, letting something strange and unsettling unravel.
The bottom line:
Fans of “Black Mirror” or “The Twilight Zone” might be drawn to the fantastical setup of Fever Dream, but may be dissatisfied with the book’s quiet, abstract ending. Otherwise, Schweblin’s quick, feverish story is worth reading for her intoxicating style alone.
Who wrote it:
Schweblin’s stories have earned her plenty of accolades, including recognition from Granta as one of the best writers in Spanish under 35. This is her first novel, translated by Megan McDowell, whose also translated Alejandro Zambra’s work.
Who will read it:
Readers interested in the surreal, the otherworldly.
What other reviewers are saying:
Washington Post: “Schweblin, though, is an artist of remarkable restraint, only dabbing on the atmospherics, while focusing her crystalline prose on the interior lives of the two mothers, Amanda and Carla, as well as the vagaries of memory.”
The New Yorker: “I picked up ‘Fever Dream’ in the wee hours, and a low, sick thrill took hold of me as I read it. I was checking the locks in my apartment by page thirty. By the time I finished the book, I couldn’t bring myself to look out the windows.”
“They’re like worms
What kind of worms?
Like worms, all over.”
“The thing is, I think over and over how strange my fear is, and it seems ridiculous to be already loading things into the car, with Nina still in her room, asleep.
You’re trying to get away.
Yes. But in the end I don’t, do I?
Why not, David?
That’s what we’re trying to find out.”
by Samanta Schweblin
Riverhead Books, $25.00
Published Jan. 10, 2017
The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.
Every Friday, HuffPost’s Culture Shift newsletter helps you figure out which books you should read, art you should check out, movies you should watch and music should listen to. Sign up here.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this review referred to the main character as Lily on several occasions. We regret the error.