Strange can be quite normal

Dear Samanta,

Your novel Fever Dream (2017), translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Distanca de Rescate, 2014) takes the form of a conversation between a woman and a boy, going back and forth between past and present, in a fragmented series of flashbacks. It also reads like a confession of guilt, and a nightmare.

As the story opens, we are thrown in the dark. We hear voices, as if they came from a void. We hear the two main characters talking to each other, before we can see them. “There’s only darkness, and you’re talking into my ear. I don’t even know if this is really happening”. It sounds almost as if they were disembodied voices, trapped in a kind of no-man’s-land. “They’re like worms.” “What kind of worms?” “Like worms, all over.”

As the dialogue progresses, we soon find out that the voices belong to Amanda, a woman lying in bed in the local emergency clinic, and David, the child of a woman she had recently befriended. Amanda may be dying, or dreaming. David may be physically there beside her, or she might be just imagining him. Worse still – he may be dead, a ghost whispering in her ears. He might just be a product of her dreams, or a manifestation of her guilty consciousness.

Prompted by David, Amanda describes the series of recent events that led her to be apparently dying this clinic. We are not quite sure whether we are being thrown into Amanda’s hazy, fragmented memory, or into an hallucination – her fever dream. She feels trapped inside her memories: she can “see the story perfectly, but sometimes it’s hard to move forward.” Throughout the book, Amanda asks herself whether the events she is describing really happened the way she remembers them.

Amanda recalls that she was vacationing with her child, Nina, in the countryside of San Isidro, the region of soy fields of northern Argentina, where she had rented a house. There, Amanda befriended a neighbour, Carla, David’s mother. But we soon notice that something is amiss. “There’s something like mutual fascination between us, and also at times, brief moments of repulsion”.

Carla begins to tell her story to Amanda. We learn that David was poisoned by the water in a stream when he was younger, and that Carla feels this accident was her fault. But then her story veers into the supernatural: to cure her son, Carla took him to a local psychic, who has migrated part of David’s soul to the healthy body of another child; furthermore, the spirit that replaced the other half of David may be that of an evil child. “So this one is my new David. This monster.” She argues that her son is no longer the same. “David doesn’t call me Mom anymore,” Carla adds. “Whatever has cursed this town for the past ten years is now inside me”, says David himself. Amanda is as taken aback by Carla’s strange reasoning as we are. How much should we trust Carla’s story? Are Carla and her son reliable narrators?

In fact, David’s role in the story is difficult to pin down: he is Amanda’s guide, prompting her to remember, and guiding her through her memories; he is an editor of her story, instructing her on which details should be discarded, and which should be kept (“None of this is important”; “We’re wasting time”); a psychoanalyst, urging her to confront a trauma; a confessor on her deathbed, pushing her to repent, before it is too late; an investigator interrogating a dying witness, searching for some crucial piece of information, in a race against time; a sphynx, answering Amanda’s questions with riddles; an unreliable narrator and a rival, struggling for control over Amanda’s narrative (“This is it. This is the moment”. “It can’t be, David, this is really all there is”. “That’s how it starts”. “My God”); a ghost, or a figment of Amanda’s feverish imagination; and, finally, he is the chorus, building up tension, opening new lines of interpretation, and urging us to take part in what is happening (‘Something is going to happen now,’ David says).

Much like Amanda in her bed, we are in the dark; we can only hear his voice; like her, we are instructed by this voice to look for the important details; like her, we don’t really know what we are looking for, or why. David could be possessed by evil; he could still be sick; or maybe he is simply angry at his crazy mother. We don’t really know: when it comes to describing David, Amanda is as unreliable as Carla.

The story itself has the atmosphere of a nightmare, full of eerie elements: an evil child; a woman with dark healing powers living in a green house; a fugitive horse; a dog with three legs; a child sucking water from his fingers while a dead bird lies a few feet off. “Strange things always seem like warnings to me’”, says Amanda. The book plays with one’s deep-rooted fears – especially, one’s fears as a parent.

The idea of ‘rescue distance’, repeated by Amanda throughout the book, is the literal translation of the title of the novel in Spanish (Distanca de Rescate). For me, Rescue Distance would be a far better title in English, pointing out to an idea that is central to the novel, while Fever Dream imposes a limiting interpretation of the story. The reader doesn’t need to have things made easy for him by a catchy self-explanatory title.

The term ‘rescue distance’ refers to the variable distance separating Amanda from Nina, an estimative of how long it would take a mother to save her child in case of an emergency. “I spend half the day calculating it”, says Amanda. The ‘rescue distance’ feels like a rope tying mother and daughter, slackening and tautening throughout the book, as if playing with the narrative tension: sometimes it seems like a warning, sometimes like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It feels like we are trapped with Amanda in her fever dream: we don’t know where we are; we don’t know who is speaking in our ears; ordinary things seem strange, and are made disturbing by the way they are manipulated; everything seems to follow a nonsensical logic; and comprehension is always eluding us. “What is Nina doing?” “She’s such a pretty girl.” “What is she doing?” “She walks away a little.” “Don’t let her walk away.” Amanda sounds like a woman in a dream, trying to capture a disappearing image: the rescue distance can be as elusive as a mirage. As it happens when one is trying to remember a dream, Amanda’s memories seem more like feelings than like a coherent sequence of events.

One particular scene reads like a nightmare: ‘He’s in your house. David is in your house,’ Carla says to Amanda. As if in a dream, they try to open the door, without success. Amanda sees Nina at the window. Eventually, the two women get into the house. That night, Amanda dreams that Nina is saying: ‘I’m David.’ As she is recalling this scene in the clinic, during her fever dream, we feel trapped in a dream within a dream within a dream.

The portrayal of motherhood in your book is as claustrophobic as the dream/ the memories/ the illness / the no-man’s-land Amanda is trapped into: no matter how close they are, the mothers in your novel cannot help but to expose their children to a great danger they are not even aware of. The real story you are telling is not the one being narrated, but something hidden underneath. A disaster might be happening out of sight; there is an invisible form of danger all around; and no one is safe. There is no such thing as a rescue distance, is there?

Yours truly,

J.


Paul Gauguin, ‘The White Horse,1898.

“Strange can be quite normal. Strange can just be the phrase ‘That is not important’ as an answer for everything. But if your son never answered you that way before, then the fourth time you ask him why he’s not eating, or if he’s cold, or you send him to bed, and he answers, almost biting off the words as if he were still learning to talk, ‘That is not important’, I swear to you Amanda, your legs start to tremble.” ― Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream


About the book

  • Riverhead Books, 2017, tr.  Megan McDowell, 192 p. Goodreads
  • Original title: Distancia de rescate
  • First published in 2014
  • My rating: 4,5 stars
  • The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017;
  • This book was read for 20 Books of Summer and R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril  XII.
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