Samanta Schweblin has been heralded as one of the freshest new voices to emerge from the Spanish-speaking world. An Argentinian author, her debut novel, Fever Dream, is one which I hadn’t heard of before it piqued my interest on Netgalley. Translated by Megan McDowell, Fever Dream is a tense and well-paced novel, with an intriguing mystery at its heart.
The general plot deals with a young mother named Amanda, who is lying in bed in a rural hospital clinic. She is dying. Beside her is David, a young boy who isn’t her son, but who sees her as holding the pivotal key to the mystery which he needs to unlock. ‘Together,’ reads the blurb, ‘they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family’. Fever Dream is ‘a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale’.
David is poisoned when he drinks from an infected stream. His mother Carla, not trusting that the village doctor will reach him in time to save him, entrusts his care to a local woman. She tells her that a migration of his soul is the only way to save her son: ‘The woman said that she couldn’t choose the family he went to… She wouldn’t know where he’d gone. She also said the migration would have its consequences. There isn’t room in a body for two spirits, and there’s no body without a spirit. The transmigration would take David’s spirit to a healthy body, but it would also bring an unknown spirit to the sick body. Something of each of them would be left in the other’.
The narrative style, told solely through the format of a contemporary conversation (think italicised text and no speech marks) is very intriguing, and catapults the reader straight into the story. Very early on, Amanda tells David – and the reader, by design – ‘… but I’m going to die in a few hours. That’s going to happen, isn’t it? It’s strange how calm I am. Because even though you haven’t told me, I know. And still, it’s an impossible thing to tell yourself’. She goes on to ask him the following: ‘How different are you now from the David of six years ago? What did you do that was so terrible your own mother no longer accepts you as hers? These are the things I can’t stop wondering about’.
Crossing genre boundaries, Fever Dream is a short but memorable novel. It strikes the same unsettling chord as a horror film, just before something jumps out and terrifies you. One is palpably aware of a danger, which has been translated so well that it reads as though English is its original language.