Author: Samanta Schweblin
Translator: Megan McDowell
Type: Fiction, novel
Published: 2017 (English)
I read it: May 2018
I read four titles from the 2018 Tournament of Books, the most I’ve gotten around to from any one year of the competition. I didn’t even know Dear Cyborgs was in the running, and I was lukewarm on that book. Lincoln in the Bardo was on my to-read list for a year and I had been interested in Exit West previous to the tournament as well. Both those books made it to the very end of the tournament, and I liked each one, but it was Fever Dream that took home the rooster.
I’m not sure it would have been my top pick. I tried to skim past the judges’ specific takes on the book after I learned that it was so short I could easily read it first and therefore hold off reading about why people love it so much. The book is a translation from… I don’t even know what language, actually. I assume Spanish, although this is maddeningly unspecified. Goodreads tells me it was originally published in 2014. The author is relatively unknown to American readers, adding some extra spice to its place in the annual tournament. Going up against established authors like Hamin and Saunders, this one could swing in hard from left field.
And it does come from a far, isolated left field. Here, the grass is wet with poison, a slick and silent killer that comes for strong horses and young children alike. The main character is a mother who is dying or convalescing in a hospital, and it’s unclear what has happened to her daughter. She tries to find out by talking to another boy, and we don’t know whether she’s hallucinating him, or if he’s a ghost, or if he’s perfectly alive.
The plot point that kicks things in motion requires a huge suspension of disbelief, and is its weakest point. Basically, there’s a witch who can move people’s soul/brain into the body of another. This happens to the young boy, and his mother and father seem to slowly go insane because while the body of the boy remains intact, he is not who he was. There are some nicely creepy moments throughout, and the tension is heightened particularly for readers who are parents. The mother of the daughter constantly worries about the “rescue distance” from herself to her child, and the author uses this to unnerve us simply by having the daughter run outside, do a lap around the house, and come back. Those moments where the child is unseen open dark doors for all parents. (We recently had a rescue distance scare at our own house.) This terrifying reality, combined with the ecological dangers hinted at, are what make the supernatural elements seem superfluous.
The title of the book could not be more on point, as I imagine reading this during a fever dream, or any sustained period of sickness or lethargy, would really make the story stick. Unfortunately I couldn’t read it all in one sitting, though this is quite possible (there are no chapter breaks, or breaks at all—it’s basically a one-chapter novella). It’s a bit of a horror story, but while it would feel appropriate in October, the setting also lends itself to an oppressively bright summer day. There are no dramatic nighttime events in the book. The author highlights the contrast between a lovely vacation town and the mysterious sickness waiting beneath the surface.
As intriguing as the fever dream was, I didn’t feel as queasy as I’d prepared for. The strongest trick of the book is its effortless flow between time frames. The dread and unease remains consistent the while the main woman flashes between past and present. The entire book is a conversation, and an entrancing one, although there’s always the possibility that some lyricism got lost in the translation. And I think the last couple paragraphs could have leaned just a bit more in the direction of plot instead of leaving things in the lovely literary dangle that is so tempting to modern authors.
I do recommend this one for your next plane ride or day spent home alone. Do it right and read it all at once. For me, I can finally go read all the thoughts of the judges in the Tournament of Books. Perhaps within minutes those opinions will persuade me of the genius of this book, and why it beat out the Bardo (twice!).