My Review of "Fever at Dawn" by Peter Gardos
This book is a pure example of a love story. It illustrates the redemptive and healing power of love and how through love, people can overcome deep suffering and pain, allowing new hope and new life to grow. It is a tender, warm, affecting tale, written with as much love as the events on which it is based. Gardos has adapted the true story of the way his parents met; his respect and admiration for all they endured is evident from his characterisation and fictionalisation of them in this, his first novel.
Twenty-five year old Hungarian Miklos is shipped to Sweden from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the end of the Second World War to receive treatment for his TB infection and several other conditions resulting from his internment. He then hears the tragic news that the TB is chronic and he has only just 6 months to live. But Miklos does not want to die. He decides he will not die. Instead he will find love and marry. He writes to 117 convalescing Hungarian women who have also all been shipped to Sweden. Eighteen year old Lili receives one of these letters and confined to her bed, bored, listless and lonely, she replies. And so begins a touching exchange of letters which quickly become honest, reflective and full of love.
The story alternates between Miklos and Lili. It reveals their harrowing experiences from the war and the scars they are unable to bury. We also learn more of their characters through their daily interactions with the Doctors, nurses and their friends. These narratives are broken up with lines from the letters. I liked the way we were only given one or two lines from a letter at a time but so much more was revealed, expressed and implied from behind the words. At one point they are able to have a telephone call and I loved the way they "pressed the receivers tightly to their ears" so desperate to physically heighten the connection between them. The telephone call is a real "lifeline". The letters are also becoming more symbolic and offering so much more than just correspondence to both Lili and Miklos. It is giving them purpose, hope and dreams. It is restoring their future.
Miklos writes a poem for Lili which captures the transformative effect of their correspondence: "So come to me gently / with the smiles we lost / seek out the places / where the pain has chilled to frost / so the warmth of your caress / melts to dew within my chest."
The power of language and words is an important theme in the novel. Gardos shows how people can express thoughts and feelings through writing in a way they can't in speech. There are also numerous references to things that cannot be spoken of and things that will never be said. This is a constant reminded to the reader of the appalling things these ordinary, innocent, young people have endured. Of their mental and emotional scars as well as the physical aliments for which they are being treated.
There is a slightly oppressive atmosphere at times from the glimpses of memories, thoughts of lost or destroyed families, war, illness and even to some extent the regime and control of the Swedish Doctors and nurses. There is a deep sense of tragedy and Lili's fragility is particularly well expressed through descriptions like "fluttering dove wings" and "trembling leaves in the wind." Her dilemma over religion is sensitively explored as she argues with the Rabbi about how "God abandoned her" and she now struggles not to abandon God as she can't reconcile how He could let the extermination of the Jews happen. However, despite this, the novel does manage to generally remain much more optimistic and full of hope. It focuses on overcoming adversity and although it does not gloss over anything, it does not dwell too heavily on it either. The main message of this book is love and the profound affect it can have on people. This couple want to escape their past and change their fate. Their letter writing has a life changing effect on each other. Lili pleads to the Doctor - "let us dream!" and Miklos pleads to Lili for her to "make him better."
In the afterword, Gardos writes that his parents' love was "wonderfully uninhabited" and "so splendidly gauche it still shines" and this is an eloquent description for Miklos and Lili. The book is a compassionate tale of a random meeting of soul mates who show how the power of love, hope, dreams and promises can shape a new future. It is actually a reasonably light and easy read which ends with a sense of optimism. I enjoyed this touching and tender, gentle love story. The fact that it is based on a true story gives it more resonance and power.
Thank you to NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book in return for a fair and honest review.
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