Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream delivers more of a sense of fever beginning than any eidetic estrangement, and is more traditionally earthbound than experimental. I expected something both odder and more multi-layered than what’s basically a compelling, enjoyable jolt of bleak sci-fi with a harrowing message. It’s a fraction off-kilter, but that’s more than enough over 150 stifling, widely-spaced pages.
Amanda, clearly seriously ill and consigned to a hospital bed, is joined at her side by David, a rather affectless, monotone, disturbingly blunt child, who teases and steers recollections from the patient, intent on discovering an oft-referenced “important thing” before time runs out. This probing exchange, during which the relentless David is by turns dismissive and encouraging, reveals Amanda to have been an over-watchful parent, a fraught and oppressive mother constantly obsessed by how far Nina, her daughter, was within “rescue distance,” as well as a victim of the same poisoning that led to David’s near death. But where is everyone else, and in particular, Nina?
This deliberating exposition also involves David’s mother, Carla, and his father, Omar, whose terminally-maligned stallion heralds the agricultural-pesticides-disaster plot. The horse drinks water from a polluted stream after hurdling a fence (see what happens when you disobey and run away, kids?). There’s also, along with occasional cameos from ominous, silent men, a local woman who can, if needed, transmigrate souls from one body to another (should such a service be required — in this case, indispensable). She is called on to save David, also exposed to the poisonous pesticides, and accedes to the challenge, with one caveat: she can’t guarantee who, as David’s soul is set adrift, will replace him. The replacement could be anyone, and you know the dictates of such a plot demand that any “new David” will inevitably be a sinister creature, either lacking something or infused with oddity.
This scenario, in which David’s fatally poisoned child needs to be handed over to a stranger by a helpless mother, seems to prefigure Amanda’s worst, nursed fears, which hint at some kind of paranoiac wish-fulfillment, a tempting of fate by a cloistering, separation-anxious mother.
When he turned towards me he was frowning, and he made a strange gesture, like he was in pain. I ran to him and hugged him. I hugged him so hard, Amanda, so hard it seemed impossible that anyone or anything in the world could take him from my arms. I heard him breathing very close to my ear, a little fast. Then the woman separated is with a gentle but firm movement. David sat back against the sofa, and he started to rub his eyes and mouth. “We’ll have to do it soon,” said the woman. I asked her where David, David’s soul, would go, if we could keep him close, if we could choose a good family for him.
That sense — that the whole thing is a fabrication, a deluded response to trauma, a replication, an act of transference — pervades pretty much every page of Fever Dream. Carla, for example, never quite feels fully-fleshed, is reminiscent of a Deborah Levy character, a proxy, patchwork idealization set against all-too-real figures, there for context, to prompt others. David is literally a prompt, often feeling far too flat and incomplete to be anything other than imaginary, the vacuous goading other half of a delirious mind.
Amanda, sclerotic and anxious, desperate to know where her daughter is, confused as to her surroundings and circumstances, gradually unravels the mystery, up to a point. By the inconclusive finale, she has regained control of a narrative, and a certain amount of strength, enough at least to override the uncanny, eldritch figure chivying her for clues to a story neither counterpart will ever fully fathom. There are references to the feverish sickness David suffered before he was “saved” and his subsequent transformation into a “monster” who can lure dogs and ducks across acres of countryside to their death at his feet and subsequent ritual, unexplained, orderly burial; to a strange (and creepily deployed) incident involving David and Nina, when something curious (and artfully cinematic, in a Roegish way) takes place, the latter gesturing soundlessly and somehow portentously through a window as the mothers watch; to Amanda first discovering that the “dew” soaking through her dress is in fact something far more troubling (a moment also referencing waters breaking). We move through memories in search of a sense of order, that we might discover what has happened (stillbirth?), if not why, as Amanda’s wending self-exploration moves beyond David’s badgering influence.
She called you a monster, and I keep thinking about that. It must be very sad to be whatever it is you are now, and on top of that your mother calls you a monster.
You’re confused, and that’s not good for this story. I’m a normal boy.
This isn’t normal, David. There’s only darkness, and you’re talking into my ear. I don’t even know if this is really happening.
It’s happening, Amanda. I’m kneeling at the edge of your bed, in one of the rooms at the emergency clinic. We don’t have much time, and before time runs out we have to find the exact moment.
And Nina? If all of this is really happening, where is Nina? My God, where is Nina?
It doesn’t matter.
It’s the only thing that matters.
Amanda is blighted as much by her separation from her daughter as she is any poisonous agent, this perhaps Schweblin’s major point: how parents lose themselves in their offspring, or be lost by them, doom themselves by blurring the boundaries between parent and child, submit to the fatalism of speculative terrors and the ruinous safety of over-protection. As David’s voice is bested, and as reality resumes, Amanda seems to reach a terrible realization. In one manner or another, the “rope” between mother and daughter is severed.
(Incidentally, the men in Fever Dream are curiously absent figures, or onlookers outside the mother/child bond, marginal figureheads. The inference seems to be that they can’t understand conception, birth, such wrenching division, and so are rarely present at critical moments in the narrative; even when they are, they seem feeble. There’s also a hint that there may be a problem with “maleness” — the weak, stumbling, susceptible boy at the center of Fever Dream is quickly replaced, with help from the strange old lady in the green house (a midwife, perchance), by a much more disturbing (and much less feeble) “other,” horribly self-sufficient and dangerous, in order to keep him alive. The children here seem pre-adolescent — perhaps that fear of relinquishing authority, as they approach the edges of infancy, is at the root of such parental horror.)
Schweblin derives an impressively sinister atmosphere from her humble and minimalist setting and cast of characters. It’s pared down and deeply serious: very little time is spent on anything not absolutely central to narrative momentum. Protagonists are evinced almost entirely by their own hand, that is, with whatever they have to say, and one of the author’s strengths is doing quite a lot with the simple magic of recognizably fantastical story. Psychology is not really explored: we must look for and decipher virtually all through panicked utterances and fractured, unreliable reflections and conjecture. Because so little outside the story is happening, each individual act recounted carries exponential weight and significance, and Schweblin chooses clever means of invoking menace. In such a quiet, parched atmosphere of restrained uncertainty, that goes a long way.
Fever Dream is obviously not really about cancerous pesticides devastating a curious little town, or the lady in the green house dealing in witchcraft, or body-swapping kids to save them from imminent death, or worms, or anything outlandish. The real affliction here — what the allegorical horror-movie setup is really interested in — is parental, the tenuous, loosening ties binding mother to child, and the repercussions of allowing anything to breach the “rescue distance.” This is a cautionary tale that tells us, in eloquently odd terms: being a parent is a scary business.