by Janet Gilsdorf
On a spur-of-the-moment trip with a graduate student, Raven, to Brazil, in 1984 physician-scientist, Dr. Sidonie Royal witnesses the fatal effects of a virulent new disease on the children in the small village of Promissão. Compelled to help and discover the cause and cure of the illness, Sidonie throws everything she has into researching the virus.
As she is drawn deeper into the lives of the grieving Promissão villagers and still haunted by similar events in her past, Sidonie’s personal life and relationships begin to suffer. When the Global Health Alliance becomes involved, she faces a race against time to save the villagers and her sanity…
Fever is a curious novel. Gentle in tone despite the subject matter, scientific but with flights of some lovely descriptive imagery, and containing a fusion of genres and themes. The prose resonates with melancholy, and a sense of apprehensive dread runs through the narrative even in the chapters not overly concerned with the virus.
Following an intriguing and well-written prologue set in Brazil, Gilsdorf takes the reader straight into Sidonie’s (“Sid”) world in Michigan where she has less than two years left of her research fellowship. Understandably, given the Author’s background, the scenes set in the laboratories and centered around scientific research are sharply detailed and alive without being dense or overly technical to a lay reader.
Sid is an enigmatic and elusive character; aloof and often emotionally detached. There are reasons for her introspection, some connected, others not, but these could have benefitted with a touch more development.
Notwithstanding, Sid’s overwhelming need to discover the origin of the virus is full of passion which is to be expected given her profession but the reader is also aware that there are deeper levels of need in her involvement with Promissão that come from a different, personal place.
The chapters set in the rural Brazilian village contrast against Sid’s scientific world and Gilsdorf paints the South American landscape invitingly and authentically.
Her friendship with Raven, and then Raven’s brother, River, are her most genuine and River, especially, is well-depicted. Overall, the supporting characters are nicely realized with lots of little nuanced individualities.
However, the dynamic between Sid and Eliot, her co-worker, drives the action from within the novel. More alike than she cares to think, and more attracted to him than she will admit, it is clear to the reader that one of the reasons she breaks with her boyfriend, Paul, is Eliot’s unsettling influence.
Fever addresses several other issues; the Aids epidemic, and Sid’s struggle as a woman to be fully recognized in what is essentially a man’s world. Also, her resistance to being funneled into married life and children as if her work was of no importance. This provides a prime layer of tension in the already toxic relationship with her damaged mother.
At times, it was a touch frustrating that these side angles took momentum and concentration from Sid’s investigation and study of the unknown bacteria causing the disease but, overall, these tangents are woven sympathetically through the main narrative.
Fever is a quietly compelling and unusual novel, full of sensitivity, poignancy, and interest. Well worth a read.