Author(s): Samanta Schweblin
A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She's not his mother. He's not her child. The two seem anxious and, at David's ever more insistent prompting, Amanda recounts a series of events from the apparently recent past. As David pushes her to recall whatever trauma has landed her in her terminal state, he unwittingly opens a chest of horrors, and suddenly the terrifying nature of their reality is brought into shocking focus. One of the freshest new voices to come out of the Spanish language, Samanta Schweblin creates an aura of strange and deeply unsettling psychological menace in this cautionary tale of maternal love, broken souls and the power and desperation of family.
Fear (as opposed to anxiety, terror, horror, angst and its other cousins) clarifies perception and heightens the significance of details, much as does good writing, building an electrostatic charge which almost craves, yet ultimately resists, the release offered by the revelation of the feared. Schweblin’s short novel is like a Van de Graaff generator, building a textual charge that can be felt up the spine long after the book is finished. The book sustains three narrative levels most of the way through: Amanda, a woman apparently on her deathbed in a clinic, is urged with increasing intensity by David, someone ostensibly a child, to narrate a seemingly recent series of events when Amanda, who was on holiday with her young daughter Nina in the environs of a small Argentinian town, spent some time with Clara, the mother of her interrogator. The third narrative level is provided by Amanda reporting the stories told to her by Clara, largely concerning David’s contact with the environmental poison that contaminates the whole novel and is the cause of the deaths of animals and humans in the area and the cause of deformities, illnesses and eldritch personalities among the children who survive. A fourth narrative layer is occasionally provided by Amanda reporting Clara’s reports of things told to her by her husband. In the surface layer, David’s demeanor, demands and speech are very unchildlike, bringing into question his status as a child, and also the length of time since the events narrated by Amanda occurred. He seems very like the part of an author that drives the narrating part to narrate and we cannot be sure how much of the story has a ‘factual’ basis. In addition, the narrator is apparently suffering a high fever, and the heightened but narrowed perceptions destabilised by hallucination, or by the uncertainty about whether what is perceived is a hallucination or not (which is the most frightening thing about hallucinations), combined with the compelling fear is both typical of fever and a further destabilisation of the narrative. Towards the end of the book, the David character ceases to question Amanda, and Amanda goes on, unguided, to narrate her husband’s visit to Clara’s husband some time after, presumably, both Amanda’s and Clara’s deaths, a visit that she cannot know about, further undermining the veracity of the narrative and deepening doubts about Amanda’s relationship to it. Amanda’s story demonstrates that being within ‘rescue distance’ is not enough to save those we love when the world is saturated in literal and metaphorical poisons, and we lose those we love by letting them slip from their places in our narratives and losing the specificity of their identities.
Long-listed for Man Booker International Prize 2017.
Samanta Schweblin is the author of three story collections that have won numerous awards, including the prestigious Juan Rulfo Story Prize, and been translated into 20 languages. Fever Dream is her first novel. Originally from Buenos Aires, she lives in Berlin. Megan McDowell has translated books by many contemporary South American and Spanish authors, and her translations have been published in The New Yorker, Harper's and The Paris Review. She lives in Chile.