FEVER DREAM

The Monthly (Australia) - - VOX -

Sa­manta Sch­we­blin (trans. Me­gan McDow­ell) Oneworld; $19.99

Ru­ral Ar­gentina. Near fu­ture. A woman, Amanda, is dy­ing in an emer­gency ward. She has a high fever but is com­pelled to talk, to tell a story to a boy called David. Kneel­ing by her bed he whis­pers ques­tions; she replies. Their flat, de­tailed di­a­logue con­cerns a small village, strange chil­dren, dead chil­dren, mys­te­ri­ous farms in an un­even but some­times lush land­scape where fields of soy “lean in”. Amanda might be hal­lu­ci­nat­ing and David might be a lit­tle boy, but he sounds adult as he urges Amanda to get to the point be­fore she dies.

John Wyn­d­ham’s The Mid­wich Cuck­oos, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo

and Mar­garet At­wood’s Oryx and Crake all re­ver­ber­ate in Fever Dream.

Sa­manta Sch­we­blin knows her habi­tat and moves serenely within it. In the Span­ish-speak­ing world she is known for her short sto­ries, and this is her first novel and first trans­lated book. If the trans­la­tion is true, there is not one wasted word. The me­thod­i­cal pre­ci­sion of the writ­ing, one word slot­ting into an­other, shapes a wall of mount­ing dread.

Amanda and her small daugh­ter, Nina, have come to the coun­try on va­ca­tion, and Amanda re­calls notic­ing on the first day the strange chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly David, the son of Carla, a woman she has just met and finds fas­ci­nat­ing. Carla tells her of the sud­den death of the fam­ily’s prized horse and the sub­se­quent ill­ness of David, and how a lo­cal shaman type saved his life by re­plac­ing half of his soul. But the real David never re­turned. Carla now calls him a mon­ster and he never calls her “mom”.

If the en­vi­ron­ment is one great anx­i­ety in Fever Dream, par­ent­hood is the other. Nina, do­ing laps around the house and mak­ing sweet jokes, is an en­chant­ing and en­chanted child. Amanda loves her more than any­thing in life; she lives every moment bound by an aware­ness of a res­cue dis­tance, the steps she can take to res­cue her beloved daugh­ter if nec­es­sary. She’s not neu­rotic. This is ev­ery­day moth­er­hood, a fu­sion of love and ter­ror, when moth­ers be­lieve that as long as they live they can pro­tect their chil­dren.

Sch­we­blin cuts through any fan­tasy that res­cue dis­tance can make a dif­fer­ence in a lazy, ve­nal, ig­no­rant, care­less world. Nurses in hos­pi­tals turn their heads and of­fer salves, fa­thers don’t no­tice what they should, and even the coun­try­side, the orig­i­nal par­adise of wav­ing green fields and bub­bling streams, will kill you when you feel most safe. This village is si­lent, the fields are emp­tied of live­stock, no birds sing. What lives is with­ered. This is the bleak­est of nov­els be­cause Sch­we­blin dis­misses facile hope. It is a con­tem­po­rary slant on Blake’s Songs of In­no­cence and Ex­pe­ri­ence.

Read it.

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