Identity

Exploring the Terror of Motherhood with Latin America's Most Promising Novelist

Samanta Schweblin is an Argentinian prodigy whose work has already been translated into twenty languages. Now her mesmerizing, frightening debut novel ‘Fever Dream’ has been translated into English for the first time.
January 30, 2017, 2:00pm
Photo by Alejandra Lopez

When you love someone fully, the thought of something bad happening to them is a terrifying specter you can't escape. The external world becomes frightening. Everything and everyone is a potential threat.

Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin explores how love can birth fear in her mesmerizing novel Fever Dream. The story is about two mothers in a small town— Carla and Amanda—as they try to protect their children from an unknown poison. A visceral exposition of maternal terror, Fever Dream teaches us that if the love you have for your child is the strongest type of love you can experience, the fear you may lose them is the most awful fear of all.

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Schweblin uses an innovative narrative structure. Amanda, mother to the infant Nina, wakes up in some sort of medical facility. She is confused, disorientated. Sitting beside her is David, the son of her friend Carla. Their conversation forms the entire novel (David's speech is italicized, to avoid confusion.) Amanda tells David the story of how she ended up in this place, but David seems to have heard it before. He wants her to speed up, to recount the important thing that will explain everything, he says, incomprehensibly.

We're drawn into Amanda's story, as she recounts it to David: How she moved to a holiday home in a peaceful suburban town with Nina and her absent, corporate executive husband. How she befriended Carla, and her weird son David. How Carla confesses a terrible secret about David, and how this terrible secret comes to threaten Amanda's own safety, and the safety of the person she holds most dear: Nina.

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In her poem "Morning Song," Sylvia Plath writes that a mother is always watchful, always alert: "I wake to listen: / A far sea moves in my ear. / One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral".

What Plath describes as a "far sea" moving in her ear is what Schweblin calls "the rescue distance" in her book. (If I have a criticism, it's that the latter wasn't the name of the novel.) Amanda is constantly assessing the distance between her and Nina; the length of time it would take her to reach and rescue her daughter if any harm befell her.

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Amanda feels the rescue distance bodily, as if it were a rope connected to her navel. "The rope pulls taut and I could easily guess where she is," Amanda explains. Later, we understand that Amanda inherited the idea of the rescue distance from her own mother, who was connected to Amanda by her own length of rope. "Why do mothers… try to get out in front of anything that could happen—the rescue distance?" David asks. "It's because sooner or later something terrible will happen," Amanda responds.

Their world is suffused with a sense of dread, and fittingly—for a novel about motherhood, written by a woman—this dread is manifested in the female body. There are unexplained miscarriages; cloying perfumes; boys with lashless and red-rimmed eyes; little girls speaking in voices that are not their own; mysterious sicknesses that modern medicine cannot cure.

Anyone who's ever watched Rosemary's Baby knows that suburban motherhood can be full of horror, but Schweblin exploits the prosaic domesticity of Amanda and Nina's life to dramatic effect. Everyday actions have a fearful alternate reality: Amanda and Carla sit in Carla's car, talking as Nina runs towards them. Amanda observes that she "moves in the driver's seat with such naturalness it's hard to believe she got in this car for the first time today." It's a simple act—a child getting into a car—but this is a stranger's car. If Nina will get into Carla's car without a second thought, what other dangers will she run towards?

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Schweblin's writing, translated from the original Spanish by Megan McDowell, is sparse, precise, but full of looming disquiet. It's an astonishing work from the Latin American author, whose work has been translated into twenty languages. (Schweblin has already authored three short story collections, but Fever Dream is her first novel.) We caught up with her over the phone from Berlin, where she currently lives.

Image courtesy of Penguin Random House

BROADLY: Hi Samanta, thanks for talking to us. Where did you get the idea for Fever Dream?
Samanta Schweblin: The first thing I wrote was Amanda's dream. That was the seed from which everything came from. To have a three-year-old daughter that can barely speak telling you that she is not your daughter—that whoever is inside her right now is someone else. And to know, with that terrible certainty, that it is true. What would you do? Later, David's voice appears, and that dictated the whole plot and even how I worked. Sometimes, when I felt lost or had some doubts I could hear David's voice saying "That's not important. Hurry up, we don't have much more time."

The narrative structure is innovative. Was it hard to get right?
It took a lot of work. I was convinced it could be complex, but not complicated. It's complex because you have three voices: Amanda, Carla, and David. It's also happening in three different time periods. I sent it to a lot of other authors, to check they thought it worked. I'm very controlling!

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The sense of control is also felt in the book, I think. Amanda wants to control things so she can protect Nina. Did you want to communicate that sense of anxiety?
I think it comes down to the rescue distance. Amanda has this necessity to always know where Nina is. And I have this rescue distance with my readers, too. Writing for me is like giving instructions to your readers. You have to be really precise, and you have to know where your reader is at every stage of the book.

But the language is very simple.
The novel is complex, so the words should be simple. We—the writer and the reader—need to construct this monster together. If the reader's struggling to understand me, then we can't build the monster. But there are also other feelings, feelings I can't put on the page but that are constructed in the reader's minds.

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To me this feels like a novel about motherhood.
The book is about motherhood. Maybe it's related to my own fears. I'm not a mother, but I'm in my mid-thirties and am thinking about motherhood. I have this strong feeling that I want to be a mother. I've never had a child, but I've been someone's child for my whole life, and I can feel in my body the rescue distance with my own mother. I can feel how much that hurts, and how that can put you in a desperate situation, and how much that fear can hurt you and control you. Fever Dream was a way to investigate all these scenarios because writing allowed me to train myself on my fears without actually getting hurt.

Have you always had this idea of a rescue distance?
I always had this feeling that if something happened to me, those who really loved me would also be able to feel that something had happened—that something was wrong. I always had this feeling. And I had this feeling for the people I loved also. But when I talked about this with other people, everyone agreed but nobody had a name for it. I developed this phrase to try and explain this feeling: the rescue distance.

Why is the threat unspecified? I feel that other authors would have given more explanation.
If you know where the danger is, it is really easy to avoid it. But if you don't know what the danger is, in that moment everything is full of danger. Everything. Because you don't know what is happening, and where the evil is. So that's a more desperate feeling then the kind of feeling where you know where the evil is. The source of the poison isn't important. What's important is that there's a mother who has a rescue distance with her daughter, and she can't take care of the rescue distance, because she doesn't know where the evil is. We feel terrified, because the worst evils in this new world that we are living in are in the food we are eat; the air we breathe; the news we read—and still we are unable to perceive them.