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Like many people, I was fascinated by the surreal atmosphere and ambiguous meaning of Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin's novel “Fever Dream” when it first appeared in English a couple of years ago. Now a collection of her short fiction has just been published and it's of a similar sinister vibe with odd twists of logic that often veer into near nightmares. Here are stories of children that transform into butterflies, businessmen who are turned into farm hands, a dissatisfied wife who meets an amorous merman and a daughter whose new diet consists solely of consuming living birds. This subject matter could easily feel whimsical if it were written by another author, but Schweblin maintains elements of psychological truth so this fiction continues to feel real even if it's filled with the fantastical. Her stories often feel like puzzles where the meaning is tantalizingly close and I could solve it if I could just work out the intricately constructed design she's skilfully created. But, of course, these stories offer no definitive answers – just glimpses of the inexpressible fears, desires and carnage which simmer just under the surface of our everyday reality.

The way Schweblin approaches common themes from an unlikely angle brings out a new kind of emotional honesty. So subjects such as infidelity, miscarriages, eating disorders, spousal abuse, body image and depression are explored in these stories but in a way which defamiliarises the way we commonly think about them. Although the stories are fantasies they deal with serious issues. For instance, in the story 'Preserves' a woman whose unborn child dies in uterus goes through the process of pregnancy with the support of her family even though they know the child will be stillborn. It shows how the idea of a new child forms so fully in the minds of the family its due to be born into and becomes part of their lives even before its arrival. So the story considers how to deal with feelings of mourning which can arise in this tragic situation common to many families. It's a different kind of magical thinking from what Kit De Waal describes in her novel “The Trick to Time”.

Another story which had a strong resonance for me was the titular tale 'Mouthful of Birds' which describes the perspective of a father whose daughter begins only consuming living birds and refuses to engage in discussions. He's separated from his wife and when the daughter is left in his care he witnesses her deteriorating health because he doesn't want to support her barbaric new diet. In one of the few instances when the daughter speaks she asks if her father loves her and in this moment there is so much unexpressed longing and sorrow as she desperately tries to find a way to control her crumbling family and situation.

The way Schweblin approaches her subject matter feels most poignant when it’s teased out in her longer stories. I felt some of the less successful and least impactful tales were also some of the shorter pieces such as ‘Butterflies’ and 'Rage of Pestilence'. In these it seemed like a central concept was compressed too explicitly into surreal imagery. Some stories also stretch too far into the oblique and become twisted up in a convoluted structure such as 'Olingiris'. Schweblin’s ideas come more alive when they are situated in longer stories such as ‘Headlights’ where brides left on the roadside congregate into a vengeful swarm or 'Heads Against Concrete' where a narrator’s violent impulses, emotional disconnection and racial prejudice are translated into “high” art. Better yet, some of the most eerie tales are where the central object of the story remains entirely unseen and unnamed such as a couple’s desperate attempts to “capture” a child in 'On the Steppe' or a village of vanished children in 'Underground'.

Samanta Schweblin & writer Valeria Luiselli in conversation

Not all the stories in this book are so outrageously bizarre. Some such as 'Santa Claus Sleeps at our House' and 'The Test' are so deeply ensconced in the narrator’s perspective that reality seems to be shifting around them due to innocence or guilt. Still others movingly capture people’s concealed emotions such as 'The Size of Things' where a rich, successful man steadily regresses while inhabiting a toy shop. Other stories grope at understanding the unknowable emotional condition of others such as a man that suffers from depression in 'My Brother Walter' or the story ‘Irman’ where the death of a man’s wife swiftly leaves him perilously helpless.

Overall I loved getting lost in these tales with their refreshing flavour for the absurd. They brim with a vibrant creativity and I admire the way they offer a warped counter reality to life.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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This gripping novel made me immediately flip back to the beginning to search for details I might have missed. I also felt compelled to search for other people’s opinions online to try to figure out what happened. “Fever Dream” is an incredibly creepy and mesmerising story about a woman named Amanda confined in a rural hospital having a tense conversation with her neighbour’s son David. She discusses with him her arrival at a holiday home with her daughter Nina (her husband is due to arrive later) and events involving David’s mother Carla. At first I found this to be quite a disorientating story because it’s largely composed of dialogue taking place in two distinct time periods, but once I had a good handle on the characters I felt completely wrapped in the mystery. I didn’t entirely understand what was happening, but I knew a lot was at stake as David continuously prompts Amanda to skip over parts of the story that are “not important.” Time is limited because he tells Amanda that her life is drawing to a close.

Reading “Fever Dream” felt like the experience of watching a Guillermo del Toro film where reality is slightly distorted as something very sinister is happening just beneath the surface of all the events taking place. We’re in that blurry territory that borders the fantastical and the psychologically disturbed. In this way, the novel accurately recreates the experience of being in a feverish state of mind. There are horses that go missing, a boy that turns into a monster, dead ducks, a disease that’s “like worms” and a poison that permeates the environment. Because of Amanda’s hazy sense of consciousness and uncertain memory, this story has an infectious hallucinatory effect that left me highly unsettled and grasping for understanding.

One of the prevailing themes of the novel is the degree to which we’re connected to the people we love the most. Amanda frequently expresses concern throughout the story that she wants to keep her daughter Nina within “rescue distance,” which is another way of saying within the bounds of her protective reach. She envisions it like an invisible rope connecting them and if Nina roams too far away this virtual rope will snap. This accurately reflects the way the people we love inhabit our consciousness – something which causes us happiness but also anxiety because we fear for their safety. In her debilitated state in the hospital, Amanda repeatedly expresses concern for the whereabouts of Nina. David assures her that this isn’t important, but of course for Amanda her daughter’s safety is the most important thing. The way in which children are individuals we alternately fear and fear for reminded me of the similarly gothic novel “The Children’s Home” by Charles Lambert. It could be that David is reminding Amanda that in the end we are quintessentially alone or he could be a sinister force compelling Amanda to break her connection with the person she cares for the most.

The tension over whether Amanda should trust David or his mother Carla is so interesting. Carla is mistrustful of her son, yet she seems to be the one preventing Amanda from leaving this uneasy environment when she becomes alarmed. Schweblin drops in tantalizing imagery such as the way Carla wears a gold bikini or the ominous dampness which covers Nina’s clothes which Amanda mistakenly assumes is dew from the grass. These are details which feel intensely vivid, yet their meaning is uncertain. The story needles the reader’s sub-conscious playing upon our unexpressed fears and anxieties in a way that simulates how we are helpless participants within a nightmare. For such a short novel “Fever Dream” makes an incredibly compelling and satisfying puzzle.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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