I just finished Distancia de Rescate (Fever Dream) by Samantha Schweblin and, after a bit of a slow start, I really, really loved it. The reviews call it a “horror” novel, which it is, I suppose, but in a very different way than any horror novel I’m familiar with. I was afraid that it would be something like a pulpy Stephen King novel — something that keeps you up at night but doesn’t provide a whole ton of literary engagement (pretty much the opposite of what I’m generally looking for).
What I got really blew me away — once I got about 1/3 of the way into the novel (it’s very short!) I couldn’t put it down and finished the back two thirds in one sitting.
The novel follows the story of a mother and a young daughter who go for a vacation in a small farming town in rural Argentina (presumably). Very strange things start to happen and the story is told from the perspective of the mother after the events occurred as she is struggling to remember and understand what happened.
The horror builds slowly, and Schweblin uses the device of the retrospective “fever dream” brilliantly to keep the reader in the dark as much as the narrator even as she’s recounting events from the past. Her interlocutor, David, is also just the right amount of creepy and ominous to keep the story moving and the reader vaguely apprehensive.
** Spoilers start here **
Besides the technical craft of the novel (which is very, very good) I was really floored by the way that the author made use of toxic pesticides as the specter that torments the character — I had never thought of this before, but toxic pollution really does have many of the characteristics of what make for a terrifying monster in a work of horror:
- You can’t see it
- You don’t know when it’s close or far away
- You can’t protect yourself with any normal methods (bullets, knives, running away)
- Because they can’t see it, other people won’t heed your warnings until it’s too late
Schweblin makes the fear and the damage caused by toxic pollution visceral and terrifying — I had always thought of pollution as being generally “very bad” but not something I spent much time thinking about — as with any good work of fiction, Fever Dreams makes the unseen and unseeable feel real, oppressive, and truly terrifying.
Most compelling to me is how Schweblin shows us different characters with differing abilities or desires to believe in what is happening — from Carla, who prefers to believe that her son is possessed rather than poisoned to the nurse in the emergency medical center who seems to be on the payroll of the industrial agriculture company that props up the town, these characters blindness to and complicity with the toxins that are killing their town and their children only adds to the horror — however, unlike in a Stephen King novel, this horror feels incredibly real and surely a reflection of the real world today, not a horrifying imaginary world that we can take comfort in not living in.
Schweblin shows us a nightmare, and then reminds us that the nightmare is real and the characters are real and we aren’t doing anything about it.