Sunday, May 15, 2016

Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos

Title: Fever at Dawn
Author: Péter Gárdos, Elizabeth Szász (translation)
Publisher: Anansi International
Publication date: April 30, 2016
Rating: ★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

Twenty-five-year-old Holocaust survivor Miklós is being shipped from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to Gotland, Sweden, to receive treatment at the Larbro Hospital. Here he is sentenced to death again: he is diagnosed with tuberculosis and his doctors inform him that he has six months to live. But Miklós decides to wage war on his own fate: he writes 117 letters to 117 Hungarian girls, all of whom are being treated in the Swedish camps, with the aim of eventually choosing a wife from among them.

Two hundred kilometres away, in another Swedish rehabilitation camp, nineteen-year-old Lili receives Miklós’s letter. Since she is bedridden for three weeks due to a serious kidney problem, out of boredom — and curiosity — she decides to write back.

The slightly formal exchange of letters becomes increasingly intimate. When the two finally manage to meet, they fall in love and are determined to marry, despite the odds that are against them.

Based on the original letters written by Miklós and Lili (ninety-six altogether), Fever at Dawn is a tale of passion, striving, and betrayal; true and false friendships; doubt and faith; and the redeeming power of love.

Many thanks to the publisher for sending me this electronic copy via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The synopsis of Fever at Dawn is far more compelling than the book itself. My problem is this: the storyline meanders on and on, with far too many loose ends left behind. By the time you reach the end of the book, you're left wondering why you even bothered to read the thing you just read.

Fever at Dawn is based on the real life story of the Jewish-Hungarian author/director Péter Gárdos's parents, which perhaps makes the story more interesting than it would be otherwise, but it also makes me wonder if the author just took bits and pieces of real life, added in a weak backstory, and called it a day. There were moments that stood out to me, but there was not enough "plot" or momentum to really hold everything together. In some ways, it felt like I was reading a fictionalized account of someone's daily journal - some things were interesting, but on the whole, it was missing a roadmap. If you were to ask me, I don't think I could even tell you what the real point of the story was - the plot structure was unclear and really lacking.

Like I said, the description of Fever at Dawn oversells the book for me - the themes mentioned (betrayal, friendship, striving, love...) are all there, but they feel like afterthoughts - somehow disjointed from the essence of the story. But I do have to say that the writing is lovely and well-translated by Eliabeth Szász. The characters are also interesting - particularly Miklós, the optimistic and quirky and ever-hopeful protagonist. I only wish the storyline itself had been more carefully thought through.

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