With her early, noirish crime novels, Megan Abbott revisited the hardboiled tradition and period detail of 1950s LA from a female character’s perspective. Her more recent books, including Dare Me, have focused on the mystery and intrigue surrounding teenage girls. From that description you might expect something suited to Young Adult readers, but The Fever is as dark, compelling and grown-up as the finest psychological crime.
Abbott’s story is seething with sexual tension, among both middle-aged parents and those on the cusp of adulthood. Narrated by three different family members, the novel’s drip-feed of details about a mysterious contagion that afflicts teenage girls at the same high school sometimes feels like a modern fairytale.
The small town of Dryden is shrouded in mist, while the girls are drawn to the ‘dead’ lake and forbidding tales about a drowned child are stirred once more. One of the afflicted teenagers, Gabby, lives in a home that’s described as a gingerbread house. According to one absent character, the town itself is rotting – as if it’s been cursed. There’s a fatalistic flavour to the narrative, in which Abbott’s heightened prose style captures the hysteria surrounding a health scare in this fictional high school.
Family life can be warm and close, but also horrific. Gabby’s mother is a single parent with a livid scar inflicted by the claw hammer wielded by her drunken husband. The Nash family is coping with the fall-out from a marriage breakdown, resulting in the departure of the wife and mother. Tom is a popular chemistry teacher at the school his children attend, so he has a ringside seat as the fever takers hold. Eli is the easier of the two children, focused on ice hockey and fending off the attention of younger girls. Deenie, his younger sister, is anxious over her decision to dispense with her virginity to a co-worker at a pizza restaurant. She’s also uncertain about her friendship with Gabby, who’s always whispering with Skye, the strange, aloof girl with an older boyfriend.
It’s Deenie’s long-standing friend Lise who’s first to succumb to the fever, collapsing in class and frothing at the mouth. Lise ends up in hospital and becomes violently ill. Her mother, another single parent, is distraught. Other girls soon get sick, though the symptoms are never quite the same. For one unpopular girl, who always seems to be wearing last year’s trainers, the fever is a boon to her social status thanks to her online videos updating the school on the sickness and her theories.
Of course, technology can soon become dated in fiction, but Abbott keeps the details general enough. These teenagers have simply grown up with their smartphones and are used to being one click away from another video update. Privacy is a thing of the past: when sick girls are caught on camera by their school friends, the footage always ends up online.
When an idea emerges that the cause of the fever may be the new HPV vaccine administered by the school, hysteria sets in and the media amplifies the agony. A mysterious sickness has turned into a moral panic about the burgeoning sexuality of teenage girls. However, the HPV jab is just one theory; there’s also the dead lake or even the school building. The terrifying name of Typhoid Mary comes up too. A century ago, Mary Mallon, asymptomatic carrier of the Typhoid pathogen, was believed to have infected 51 people. Has something similar happened here?
It’s a beguiling mystery that makes for a unique crime novel: the media-led hysteria of Gone Girl meets the strange, forbidding prose of Joyce Carol Oates and Shirley Jackson. With its languorous style and growing sense of dread, this is not just another efficient page-turner. The Fever is an atmospheric novel of sexual intrigue and parental dread. It casts a spell that is hard to shake.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars