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Classic Review: Fever Dream

G D Penman By G D Penman Published on June 12, 2017

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The Man Booker Prize is widely considered to be the highest acclaim that a literary work can have lavished upon it but like many things in the publishing world it skews more than a little in favour of writers who use English. To remedy this situation, and to introduce the literati of the western world to some new voices and insights, the Man Booker International Prize was introduced to showcase translated works from all over the world.

If you have read through any of my other reviews, you may have noticed a little disdain towards authors of “literature” rather than books, and I just want to clarify by saying that I have profoundly enjoyed many works of literature and I can appreciate them for what they are despite the distinct lack of dragons, lasers and explosions. What I take issue with is when a literary author descends from the heavens to grace us lowly genre fiction mortals with their presence. Deigning to write a book of genre fiction, without ever having read any of the genre, and expecting to receive all their usual acclaim. Many authors in genre fiction use “literary” techniques to great effect, but they also understand how their genres work. Most of the dabblers do not.

Which finally brings us to my personal pick for the Man Booker International Prize; Fever Dream. A book which blends literary writing and magical realism with a solid backbone of horror. Of all the genres that benefit the most from literary techniques, horror is the one where I see them implemented the least frequently, which is a genuine shame, because the soft edges that literature puts on reality works amazingly well with stories of the supernatural, or stories with subjects too dark to address directly.

The famous ghost story author M R James had a memorable quote about horror which I am about to butcher for simplicity’s sake. He said that he could always tell the difference between an invented ghost story and a real one because the invented one always had to have a point while the real one, recounted by friends of friends, had no meaning deeper than the experience itself. Many masters of the horror genre have pursued that lack of understanding in their work, that sense that the universe is beyond comprehension, with the most obvious example being H P Lovecraft.

Samanta Schweblin pursues exactly the same goal with Fever Dream but mixes that existential dread and lack of understanding with far more human fears. Death and the crippling anxieties of parenthood.

From the very first moments of the book we know that her narrator Amanda is dying. That she is recounting moments from her final days in a constant impressionistic stream of cognition in a last desperate attempt to fend off her confrontation with the terrible truth at the end of her story. 

The way that the story is told is at least as important as the story itself. Every one of the characters is recounting their own story within the story in a Russian doll of narratives, creating a shell around the terrible truth and creating a situation in which there is a sense of partial possession. No one character gets to be only themselves, which ties perfectly into the one supernatural element of the story, the local wise woman who is doing her best to save those poisoned by the environmental threats of the area where the story takes place.

You get the distinct sense that Amanda’s story is only a piece of something larger, not only because of the fragmented nature of the plot, but also because there is not even the slightest hint of a resolution. The story continues without Amanda and without our observation, the fragments of the story keep on spreading out and touching lives beyond our limited perspective. Life goes on after we, both narrator and reader die, which is a whole other thread of existential horror that Schweblin weaves through this perfectly constructed story with ease.

G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of Call Your Steel, The Year of the Knife, Heart of Winter, Apocrypha and many other books. He is also a full-time freelance ... Show More

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