‘Fever Dream’ is a well-written nightmare

Sunday, February 5, 2017 - 5:16pm

Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s debut novel “Fever Dream” is titled after the vivid, hallucinatory dreams that accompany an illness. Except “Fever Dream” isn’t a dream. It’s a nightmare, one that glows with taut, sinister energy.

“They’re like worms,” it begins. Amanda lies dying in a hospital clinic, speaking to David, the son of her friend from her vacation hometown. He questions her, prodding her to recount her experience getting acquainted with him. He seems to be searching for something, but doesn’t explain what the worms mean, nor what sparks their importance.

Told entirely in sparse dialogue, “Fever Dream” leaks out just enough detail needed to invoke a sense of dread. Hints of evil permeate its pages, but its nature is undefined. “Nina!” Amanda often calls out for her daughter; “Where is Nina?”

There is no answer.

David dodges her questions, and tells her there isn’t much time left, to keep going, to keep telling the story. A sense of urgency pulses throughout, keeping the reader in a constant state of the unknown. “That’s not important.” he interrupts. “What happened next? What did she say?” Amanda wants to stay in her memories, wants to tell the story to completion. David impatiently shoves her forward, and we whip our heads backward in confusion, trying to grab hold of quickly vanishing details before we’re forced to fly on to the next.

Through their unsettling conversations, pieces of the story eventually emerge. After drinking water from a poisoned stream, David falls ill and his mother begs a witch healer to transplant his soul into another body. She warns that though he may survive physically, his soul will be split in two, leaving something “unknown” to fill the void. At David’s urging, Amanda recounts how her and her daughter, Nina’s lives change after encountering the new David.

Amanda obsesses over the “rescue distance” between Nina and herself, the physical proximity she must maintain to protect her daughter if something goes awry. She describes it as the “invisible thread” connecting them, one that tightens around her stomach to signal danger. It is through charting the ever-evolving length of this “rescue distance” that we circle closer to the truth.

With two unreliable narrators acting as the only portal to understand what happened, Amanda’s bewilderment and fear becomes the reader’s own. How much of the story is real, and how much of it is Amanda’s imagination? David sometimes corrects her, moves her to different places. Can we trust him? Everything about “Fever Dream” is dizzying, with the only certainty being the visceral need to protect one’s child.

It’s this uncertainty that makes “Fever Dream” so horrifying. Amanda knows just enough to realize that something is terribly wrong but cannot fix it. She’s stuck, a bystander in history, trapped in the sands of her own fate, with nothing to do but yield to her terror. “Fever Dream” harnesses the power of instinct, throwing its characters into a poisoned dreamworld, dissolving their social pretenses in the face of desperation, so that what’s left is the primal relationship between mother and child.