12) Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
This was recommended in lots of ‘best of’ lists in 2017, as a compelling piece of fiction by a young, emerging writer: Schweblin has been named one of the best young writers in Spanish (under 35) and this book was shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize. It is certainly unlike anything else I’ve read this year, and the title Fever Dream is an accurate description not only of the experience of the main protagonist, but also of the reader (at least this one). It is a dark, mystical tale with a sinister undercurrent and a ghoulish edge to it which grips your attention, whilst refusing to satisfy the norms of plot or characterisation. It is distinctly creepy.
The plot is a little tricky to pin down, but it start with Amanda who seems to be dying in a hospital bed in dialogue with David, whose words appear in italics. She tells the story of how David got poisoned when he was young (by water) and his mother Carla took him to a strange psychic woman in a green house who said the only way he could survive was to divide his spirit between two people. This leads David to becoming a deeply strange child, with an adult sensibility and a growing taste for burying animals.
Amanda is anxiety-ridden with concern for her daughter Nina, who seems under constant threat. Indeed, the centre of the book is really her maternal love and care for her daughter, based around the concept of the ‘rescue distance’ – how far can you be away from your child at any specific time, given the context, to rescue them. [It’s worth noting that Rescue Distance, in Spanish, was the original title, and is a better one]. Fear and anxiety grips her as the strangeness grows, and we are left similarly floundering in the dark for answers, for facts and to know and understand what is happening.
It’s very cleverly structured and paced, with movements around in time not impinging on the urgency of the narrative: primarily that urgency comes from David’s italicised responses and prompts about which details are important (or not). Schweblin conjures a strange and disturbing tale of disappearance, of motherly love, of spirits and witchcraft and of a deep unsettling feeling that there are dark, uncontrollable forces out there. Not recommended if you have small children, or if you get easily spooked before bedtime. Otherwise, it’s a fascinating story which is well off the beaten bestseller track.