“Haunting” is one of those literary descriptors that are applied perhaps a bit too liberally: We might read about illness or lost love, shipwrecks or close encounters, and find the term is as close as we can get to describing our resulting unease.
The feeling you are left with after reading Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s debut novel, Fever Dream, is not quite one of being haunted, but rather of being trapped: Schweblin has created a universe steeped in ecological violence from which she will not easily allow us to escape.
We first meet our protagonist, Amanda, as she lies dying in a rural clinic far from her home in Buenos Aires. Neither her husband nor her young daughter are with her. Instead, David, a friend’s child, is sitting beside her — though he does not seem very childlike. When David speaks, we are meant to understand that his rote, emotionless sentences are not normal. Nothing in this situation is.
David urges Amanda to provide an oral history of her vacation, to retrace her steps to the exact moment she became sick. The novel, masterfully translated by Megan McDowell, maintains this structure throughout: a story recalled through dialogue between the dispassionate David (it’s hinted that he might be a hallucination), and the sympathetic and deeply felt character of Amanda.
Amanda describes a day she spent with David’s mother, Carla, in which Carla confessed that David isn’t really her child: He was poisoned by drinking from a river, and in order to exorcise the poison from his body, a local doctor also exorcised his soul. Carla believes that the remaining David, the David-shell, has changed. He now speaks like a 40-year old computer technician, calls her by her first name, and routinely kills and buries local animals. He has been, you might say, haunted.
This is in part a very keen novel about the anxiety of motherhood. Amanda, who is extremely protective of her young daughter, Nina, obsessively references in her conversation with David the idea of a “rescue distance,” or the amount of time it will take to reach her daughter if necessary. (If Nina falls in a pool, is Amanda close enough to jump in and rescue her?) Feeling the increasing “tightening” of that rescue distance, Amanda decides to end her vacation early and take Nina home. Of course, by then it’s too late. Their departure is interrupted by the illness of David’s mother and the mysterious “worms” that are presumably its source.
With technical and lyrical skill, Schweblin has set her characters into a real-life haunting landscape. For the past two decades, aerial pesticides have been routinely sprayed in rural Argentina, a practice connected with birth defects, miscarriages, and neurological and fertility problems. While Schweblin never directly names the pesticides as the poison that threatens Amanda, it’s not a difficult conjecture to make. After Amanda hears Carla’s story, she becomes aware that many of the local children suffer from congenital anomalies. The whole town, in fact, seems caught in a drugged stupor.
It is easy to nurture a blithe cognitive dissonance about our suicidal planetary behavior. Fever Dream disrupts that dissonance. As Schweblin quietly reminds us, “rescue distance” only works when you are trying to protect the people you love from very precise dangers: an aggressive dog, a loose nail, a closing subway door. When you live in a world in which everything has, at last, been contaminated, there is no rescuing left to be done.
Edwards is a freelance writer based in New York