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Thursday, 6 November 2014

‘The Fever’ by Megan Abbott

Published by Picador,
19 June 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-4472-2632-1

Megan Abbott is an author much better known in the USA than in the UK – but that may be about to change. Her last psychological thriller, Dare Me, gained plaudits on both sides of the Atlantic, and if The Fever doesn’t fare even better I’ll be very surprised.

It would be easy to tidy Abbott away into the Young Adult niche, and indeed her insights into the maelstrom of self-centred confusion that is an adolescent girl’s mind are powerful and perceptive. But The Fever is much more than that. Adult relationships, and mental disarray, come under her spotlight too, and no one in the small community into which she breathes life is allowed to escape unscathed.
There are echoes of Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible in this dark, compelling story. Lise, a  16-year-old high school student, suffers a bizarre seizure which leaves her in a coma, and as doctors, teachers, health officials and parents begin to investigate and speculate about the cause, a kind of contagious hysteria grabs her schoolmates and, in a different way, their parents. Is it really hysteria? Or something more sinister? Who knows?

At the centre of the frenzy is the victim’s best friend Deenie, and family: father Tom, who is also a teacher at the school; brother Eli, a little older and pin-up star of the ice hockey team; and estranged mother Georgia, who flutters desperately on the edge of the situation. Deenie herself is a quiet girl, sensitive and a little fragile, and has problems of her own which she can’t share with anyone else.

As more girls suffer seizures a whole string of possible causes is hung out for inspection. Is it a virus? A reaction to a vaccination programme? The algae in a nearby lake? Something noxious in the school building or grounds? Or – what?

Megan Abbott demonstrates a sure touch with the teenage hormonal se-saw and associated angst (and the adult kind as well) as she ramps up the tension, both individual and collective. Three more girls besides Deenie and Lise are centre stage, and all are distinct. Gabby is self-aware, highly strung, a little fearful. Skye is self-possessed, independent, possibly a little sociopathic. Kim is self-centred, and has a colourful imagination.

The cause of the illness, when it finally comes out, is shocking, but all the clues were there, albeit well buried under the red herrings.

No one dies, so the novel is psychological chiller rather than murder mystery, though a mystery in desperate need of solution does lie at its heart. The chilling reality behind what has happened lies in the destruction of trust and the damage than can be done to a community by a single thoughtless, selfish action.

Passions and feelings run high when you’re sixteen. Megan Abbott clearly remembers that all too well. The Fever is one to read, and its author is one to watch.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Megan Abbott was born in the Detroit area. She graduated from the University of Michigan and received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University. She has taught at NYU, the State University of New York and the New School University. In 2013, she will serve as the John Grisham Writer in Residence at Ole Miss.
She is also the author of a nonfiction book,  The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir, and editor of A Hell of A Woman, an anthology of female crime fiction. She has been nominated for many awards, including three Edgar® Awards, Hammett Prize, the Macavity, Anthony and Barry Awards, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Pushcart Prize.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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