In the Green House
- Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell
Oneworld, 160 pp, £12.99, March 2017, ISBN 978 1 78607 090 6
When I remember my dreams at all, they’re not stories but feelings. I once dreamed I was breastfeeding a flamingo, and I could feel the beak, even in the morning telling, before I saw the bird bite me. But even when a dream feels real there is often something in it to let you know you’re imagining things – a pink feathered bird in the hospital blanket rather than a plump pink baby – and perhaps this is also a source of comfort, the unholy contrast which insists none of this could possibly happen. Say, though, you can’t detect the unknotting detail: what’s a dream then? No longer an amusement for a lover, some solace for a friend or an offering for an analyst, the dream might be hellishly, inescapably real.
Samanta Schweblin’s first novel, Fever Dream, is a dream in which the unknotting detail isn’t yet clear. As the novel opens, Amanda is dying, and there is a voice in her ear saying strange things. The voice belongs to a young boy, David, but he isn’t her son. At this point the novel doesn’t even look much like a novel – there are no quotation marks for speech, and David’s words are distinguished from Amanda’s by italics – and, just like in a dream, we don’t immediately know where we are or who is speaking:
They’re like worms.
What kind of worms?
Like worms, all over.
It’s the boy who’s talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.
Worms in the body?
Yes, in the body.
No, another kind of worms.
Amanda asks questions, but David has only riddles for answers. What are the worms? And will finding them prove we’re in a dream or not in a dream? He presses Amanda to recall the holiday she spent a few months earlier in the ‘perfumed green’ soy fields of northern Argentina. Amanda met David there, as a result of befriending Carla, his mother. Amanda has to remember the holiday in detail to find out ‘the exact moment when the worms come into being … because it’s important, it’s very important for us all.’ This is the nonsensical but irresistible logic of a dream; when Amanda starts lingering over her memories – Carla wore a gold bikini; there was an immediate ‘mutual fascination’ between the women; Amanda’s own daughter, Nina, carried around a stuffed mole – or worrying about how close to death she is, David says: ‘None of this is important. We’re wasting time.’ Or does he even say it? This figure with an overwhelming sense of what’s important could be a real boy, but he could also be a figment of Amanda’s guilty imagination. He could be the superego of the dream, or a detective figure within it; his interest in some details and lack of interest in others contribute to the novel’s strange sense of dread. It’s David, who isn’t even her own son, who seems to know what’s going on, while Amanda, who is the mother of someone else, can only tell him what she’s seen.
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