Review | Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

I read this short novel as part of a research project I’ve been working on both at university and for my own writing. I first saw it on Booktube, and when it was longlisted for the International Man Booker, it began to get some more attention. As the reviews started coming through, it was clear that this would be an intriguing book I needed to get my hands on.

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Amanda is disorientated as she apparently wakes up in a hospital bed. But she cannot see anything around her. She can only hear the voice of David, a young boy and the son of someone else. David is trying to take her back, trying to help her remember what happened before she came to the hospital. Something happened in the days when they met, in the days when Amanda’s relationship with his mother, Carla, were becoming more strange and fraught.

David wants her to remember, though he never explains why. All he can tell her is that she is dying and that she must hurry. She must describe, in detail, everything that happened.

But memory is a fickle thing, and the events that surround what happened are just as confusing to Amanda as the situation she finds herself in now.

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It was recommended by reviewers to read this book in one sitting and I’m glad I did. It took just under two hours and the sensation of being there alongside Amanda adds to the depth of this novel.

One thing that is very clear, if you’ve seen any other information about Fever Dream, is that it’s such an unusual book, and such a richly complicated one, that most are left feeling equally disorientated once the book is over. Several have said that they genuinely don’t know what happened – or, really, what the point and purpose of the novel is. Does that detract from the enjoyment? No, absolutely not.

I’m a fan of experimental work, and novels that are bold in their expression. Fever Dream certainly falls into these categories, with its use of italics to denote David’s dialogue and the ending that leaves you stunned and a little confused. For those of you who value a book with a neat ending that explains all that has come before, this is not for you.

But it is that inability to define what the book is about that gives it its own purpose, in a way. It’s definitely a book that invites you to re-read again once you’ve had time to move away from your original impressions of it, peeling back layers to see what else could be hidden underneath. With a few months breathing space, I’ll be glad to read it again.

For me, there are some intriguing themes that run throughout the novel (again, in exploring other reviews, it seems we all have differing opinions on this). My first, and perhaps the one that I’ve seen spoken of the least, is the idea of abuse. There is a threat and a violence that seems to permeate the work, implying relationships that are not healthy, that are not safe. Motherhood is arguably the key factor when it comes to expressing what the book is discussing, as it plays on the relationship between Carla and David, Amanda and David, and Amanda and her own daughter, Nina. While Amanda is ‘tethered’ to Nina, wanting to keep her safe and feeling when she is in danger, Carla’s fear of her son leaves her to almost neglect him – he wanders freely in and out of places, including the house Amanda and Nina are staying in. There are discussions of environmental matters too, with poisoning of the water supplies being central to the plot.

I was surprised at the intensity of the more disturbing elements to the book. David’s sudden appearance in Amanda and Nina’s holiday home are a kind of horror story, that left me deeply unsettled as I read it. And there’s even a thriller element, with the feeling that both you, the reader, and Amanda are racing against time to find the answers – answers which, in all honesty, never really come.

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It’s a thought-provoking book, and one with such well-crafted precision can only be admired. A short novel that managed to evoke real feelings of disturbance and concern, it packs a punch, and I’m really pleased it’s been shortlisted for such a prestigious prize.

This was also one of the few translated novels I’ve read. Published by Oneworld and translated by Megan McDowell, it’s a fascinating look at Argentinian writing from a novelist who will hopefully continue to produce dizzying and intense work.

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