In Delmore Schwartz’s story ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’, a young man dreams he is watching his father and mother’s engagement onscreen from a seat in a cinema. Weeping at the certain knowledge of the pain to come, he’s patted on the back by a woman. ‘There, there,’ she says, ‘all of this is just a movie.’
In a way, this moment distils the challenge of all oneiric narratives — it’s a fiction within a fiction, one in which anything can happen, but without real-world consequences. In this dark, brilliantly controlled debut, the Argentinian Samanta Schweblin uses the fabric of a dream to weave a novel in which everything is at stake and at risk: identity, love and existence.
‘They’re like worms’, a boy says to a woman, Amanda, who is lying in a hospital ward, probably about to die. The boy is David, the child of her friend. He doesn’t explain what the worms mean, but it’s his italicised questioning that forces Amanda to raid her memories for the reason she has become so catastrophically ill. Through these recollections, we learn the truth about David (or at least a version of that truth), his mother, the complex relationship between Amanda and her daughter Nina, and the secret that the land around harbours.
In Megan McDowell’s lucid translation from the Spanish, Amanda’s fever dream plays out in a series of horrific and banal revelations, punctuated by David’s interjections. ‘That’s not important,’ he says often, ‘No that’s not the moment.’ It is unimportant as to whether he is real or imagined: this is an intensely claustrophobic relationship, one that plays out with the same spare horror as later Beckett — and one that hooks deeply.
In amongst the memories that build towards a devastating conclusion, Schweblin dissects and explores the anguish and pressures of parenthood — or, perhaps more accurately, motherhood, as the fathers in the novel remain absences until the end. The sense of responsibility for a life, the need to protect no matter what the consequences, is suffocatingly, hypnotically realised. When the moment comes — it does not need David to tell you when that is — we experience the shattering grief with a kind of readerly Stockholm Syndrome.
Fever Dream is deeply felt and exceptionally written — a book to be read once at speed, and then again with due attention to its themes and undercurrents. It is a superlative work of the imagination, resonant, beguiling and truly memorable.