Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

Fever Dream is translated by Megan McDowell from the original Spanish and was published by Oneworld Publications in 2017.

Opaque yet compelling narrative.

The original title was ‘Distancia de Rescate’, which translates as rescue distance and is a recurring phrase within the book relating to the safe distance a mother can be from their child at any given point.  The character Amanda explains ‘I call it the “rescue distance”: that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should.’ This relates to one of the narrative’s themes, that of the strength of maternal love.

It is a novella, and Schweblin recommends reading it in one sitting which is easily manageable. It is a slender tome, 151 pages of well-spaced dialogue between two characters. Amanda is a young woman dying in a rural clinic in Argentina. The second is a young boy, David, who sits beside her in the dark. He questions her about the “worms” and the precise moment when they appeared.

The writing style is visual and the translation is good. The setting is described through dialogue as Amanda relates the events of the last few days to David in an effort to locate “the moment”.  We know little for certain, only that Amanda is dying. The narrative offers possible reasons for this but is not definitive. Nor is it closed. Apart from the fact that Amanda has died, many other narrative arcs are left unresolved.

I didn’t find it unnerving as other reviewers have suggested. Rather, I felt quietly frustrated that I had not gained any concrete insight. This is indicative perhaps of our assumption in this digital age, that answers will be forthcoming. It reminds us that in many cases they are not.

Schweblin references the ongoing issue of pesticide pollution in her native Argentina in an elliptical way. No specifics are given of chemicals used or real places affected. The results are what are investigated through this dialogue between David and Amanda. In her recounting of the recent past, instances of animals dying and deformed children being cared for in day care facilities are woven descriptively into the text to flesh out the diegetic world.

I feel that Schweblin has an important message to impart. Hundreds of children continue to be affected in utero and post delivery by the use of pesticides in their communities.  There has also been a dramatic rise in cases of rare cancers amongst the adult population.

What concerns me is that this message is delivered so obliquely that some may miss it. Had I not heard her speak at the Perth Writers Festival in January, I would have been at a loss as to how to interpret the novel. Even with that input from the writer herself, I still feel ambivalent. I wonder whether her reticence stems from a fear of repercussions at home in Argentina.

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