June 20, 2016

Fever at Dawn - Peter Gardos

Anansi International, April 30, 2016.

Three Stars

Fever at Dawn is a novel based on a series of letters, written by the author’s parents during a short period following World War II. Gardos’ parents had always been silent about their experiences during the war and its aftermath. It’s not until his father dies that his mother decides to give her son the letters that chronicle the beginning of their relationship.

Shortly after WWII, as the concentration camps were liberated and the survivors freed, Europe was inundated with refugees. Many found themselves in Sweden, destitute and in ill health. Miklos, a twenty-five year old Hungarian rescued from the Bergen-Belsen camp, is one of these survivors. He has already been through unimaginable circumstances, and when he arrives at the hospital in Sweden, things get even worse – Miklos is diagnosed with tuberculosis and given six months to live.

After everything he has been through, and having lived through the darkest days of the war, Miklos refuses to accept the fate that his doctors have offered him. He believes he can live through his illness, but he won’t do it alone – he writes 117 letters to young women in Sweden who are also recovering from the camps, hoping one of them will become his wife.

Nineteen-year-old Lili is bedridden in a different Swedish hospital due to serious kidney disease when she receives Miklos’ letter. She replies, mostly out of boredom, and the letters soon move from formality to a place of great intimacy. Despite many obstacles, including poor health and the distance between them, Miklos and Lili fall in love and are eventually able to meet. Their love story is kind of unbelievable because it is so sudden, but the two are clinging to life after the horrors of war, and I can see how they would grasp happiness wherever they can find it.

The novel is surprisingly light and hopeful, in spite of its dark subject matter. Neither Miklos nor Lili spend any time feeling sorry for themselves, regardless of the losses they have experienced. It’s difficult to reconcile their tragic pasts with their sometimes frivolous actions, but they are still very young. The story is also about Miklos and Lili’s friends, and their unique stories of survival and grief. What I found especially interesting was the couple’s willingness – even eagerness – to give up their Jewish faith and convert to Catholicism. They feel like Judaism has already cost them so much, and were not that devout to begin with. While some Holocaust survivors had their faith strengthened by their experiences, others found that it did nothing but hurt them. It’s an interesting concept to consider.

Fever at Dawn is a slim novel, filled with short episodic scenes that are somewhat jarring as they jump from one to the next. It is told in a light, almost humorous style, but the tone is used to disguise its dark themes. For me, the discord between medium and message was too strong to truly enjoy this novel – I always felt I was outside of it looking in, as opposed to being completely immersed in the story of Miklos and Lili. As Gardos is a film director by trade, I found myself thinking that this seemed more like a screenplay than a novel. Perhaps it would be more successful when applied to the big screen. It’s also important to note that this was originally written in Hungarian, and much may be lost in translation.

I received this novel from Anansi International and Goodreads First Reads in exchange for an honest review.

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