Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s English-language debut, Fever Dream, snares readers. It’s a page-turner of mounting dread, unfolding entirely through a conversation between a bedridden young woman and the boy who whispers in her ear.
Amanda lies dying in a hospital clinic in rural Argentina. Sitting next to her is David, a boy who asks her—urges her—to remember the events of whatever trauma rendered her terminally ill. At his behest, Amanda recalls meeting David’s mother, a nervous and elegant woman named Carla. Carla tells Amanda a strange story about a very young David, who drinks the same toxic water that kills Carla’s husband’s prized stallion. To spare her son’s life, Carla calls upon a local woman with medicinal and magical abilities. By splitting David’s soul with another child’s, she saves the boy.
But this is only the beginning. Why is Amanda in the hospital? And what has happened to Amanda’s own daughter, Nina? Time and again, Amanda references the “rescue distance,” the variable space between her and Nina, the distance between a mother and any worst-case scenario that may imperil her child. “I spend half the day calculating it,” Amanda says. As she recalls more and more details, Amanda begins to tell the story her own way, trying to make sense of what matters in these events and what does not—and decide which threats are inevitable or imagined.
With the urgency, attention to detail and threat of an abrupt ending that define short stories, the novel builds unease seamlessly through exceptionally well-paced dialogue. The sparseness of Schweblin’s prose, translated by Megan McDowell, anchors this strange conversation and keeps it from becoming disorienting.
Minimalist yet complex, monochromatic yet textured, Fever Dream is a delicate and marvelously constructed tale, like a bundle of our darkest worries artfully arranged into our own likeness.