book reviews

Fever at Dawn, by Péter Gárdos

26136567Somewhat sadly, because of work, I haven’t had the time to properly review books in a long time, and if I can’t do it properly, then I don’t at all. So much work goes into a book! It’s not fair to give a wishy-washy review. And I say only “somewhat sadly” because the inability to properly review, aside from causing some guilt, has also allowed me to read for pleasure and nothing else and remind me of the kind of reader I once was: voracious, relaxed, in the moment.

That said, I sometimes miss blogging. And every now and then, a book still comes for me in the mail from a kind and generous publisher, and so I write my thoughts on Goodreads as a thank you, and post on Instagram and Twitter (though there far less often). It occurred to me that there may still be people who find and read this blog, too, so I thought I’d post what I wrote on Goodreads here.

Recently, I received Fever at Dawn from House of Anansi Press (thank you, Laura!) It’s from their international imprint. This slim novel is a sweet and lovely imagining of a man’s parents’ relationship after WWII, inspired by their letters over the six months they knew each other before getting married.

Their lives upended, and separated from their families by distance, death, or the unknown, Miklos and Lili are Holocaust survivors who have just been rescued from Bergen-Belsen camp and transported to Sweden to convalesce in separate hospitals. Determined to cheat death (M has tuberculosis) and find himself a wife, Miklos asks for the names of Hungarian women in the hospitals and begins to write to them. Lili, among others, writes back—and it is this way, as they get to know each other by mail, that M & L quickly fall in love.

Despite the heaviness of the characters’ circumstances, there’s quite a bit of humour, which, while I thoroughly enjoyed it, might have contributed to the book’s overall feeling of being a bit too insubstantial. Yes, this is a love story, not a story of what it was like to be in the concentration camps, though each one’s experience is very briefly but powerfully recounted, as well as some of their backstory. So I understand the focus on the six months of letter writing, the antics of his father in his fervour, the development of the relationship… yet even in these things, I still feel the content could have been a richer, particularly because the author was already taking licence with the story. It’s perhaps the way it is because the author is a film director rather than a novelist.

The nature of the book is a little mixed: the author is himself, relating the story, using the first-person “I” occasionally; the book also includes an epilogue (or afterword, it seems like), but because his story is only based on the letters his parents wrote each other and the stories they told him and is otherwise imagined, the book is classified as a novel.

I do feel the translation—though I haven’t got a clue how to read Hungarian and would thus technically not know if the translation is good—is very good. It’s not awkward, the humour comes through perfectly, the right words seem chosen. Nothing in terms of story itself seems lost.

I’ve always really enjoyed Anansi’s international imprint, and despite my complaints about this book—namely, that I ultimately wish for more depth and content—I still think this book is a good read. The weather, the atmosphere of the hospitals, all is palpable; the characters are very well-written, as individuals and also as groups of convalescing men and women who still manage to function through camaraderie and music despite the unspeakable horrors and near-death experiences they had. Ultimately, the novel’s value lies in compassionately and astutely portraying the resilience and beauty of hope, life, and love in a time of war.

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