Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

This is a short sharp shock of a book, a hallucinatory horror story that builds up a constant hum of excruciating tension over its 150 pages.

Published in Spanish as Distancia de rescate (Rescue Distance), the modern gothic, body-swap novella is apparently inspired by Argentina’s environmental problems, and is probably best consumed in one suspenseful sitting.

In 2017 Samanta Schweblin was featured on the second Bogotá39 list, featuring the best 39 Latin American authors under the age of 39. Fever Dream appeared in English translation in the same year, and instantly received a lot of attention. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017 and won the Shirley Jackson Award for best novella in the same year. Schweblin had already won the Spanish language Tigre Juan award in 2014, the book’s initial year of publication.

I first heard of Fever Dream via social media. Then during August – since 2014 also known as Women in Translation (WIT) month – I saw that it had been included at number 3 on a fascinating list of the 100 best books by female writers in translation compiled by the founder of WIT month. I decided the time had come to get hold of a copy.

Fever Dream opens with a woman, Amanda, lying incapacitated and mortally ill in a hospital bed, with a boy sitting by her side, whispering into her ear. He “explains” that:

“It’s the worms. You have to be patient and wait. And while we wait we have to find the exact moment when the worms came into being.”

So Amanda begins to run through her memory of the events leading up to her arrival in hospital, starting with her meeting with the boy’s mother, glamorous gold-bikini-wearing Clara. Clara lives next door to Amanda’s holiday rental, where she is staying with her almost preternaturally self-contained and mature little girl, Nina, who sweetly carries around a giant stuffed mole.

A sense of foreboding surrounds references to the little girl:

“Where is Nina now, David? I need to know.

Tell me more about the rescue distance.

It changes, depending on the situation. For example, in the first hours we spent in the vacation house, I wanted Nina close by at all times. I needed to know how many exits the house had, find the areas of the floor with the most splinters, see if the creaky stairs posed any danger … So the rescue distance is important?

Very important.”

The screw tightens, and as Amanda searches her memories to piece together events the boy sometimes stops her:

This isn’t the exact moment. Let’s not waste time on this.

Why do we have to go so quickly, David? Is there so little time left?

Very little.

I don’t always find lists that seek to establish some kind of canon to be the best places to find new reads. Like prize lists they can be problematic and subjective (my recent bad – so bad! – experience with Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte being a case in point). However, in this case Schweblin fully deserves the plaudits, and I’d be interested in reading more of her work … when I’ve got through the remaining 375 or so books I need to work through for this little project/life sentence (see the full list at https://readingandwatchingtheworld.home.blog/the-countries-by-region). If you have any suggestions or recommendations do get in touch!

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