I feel really bad, because I received an ARC of Fever at Dawn from House of Anansi in exchange for a review … and then my to-be-read pile of books quite literally swallowed this ARC and two others. In the chaos of real life and having to read other books, I just forgot these were around. I have unearthed them, however, and like precious gems I shall now read and review them diligently. If you would like to send me free books for me to ignore far longer than you probably want, please contact me!
This is a fictionalized account of how Péter Gárdos’ parents met and courted during their convalescence in different hospitals in Sweden following the holocaust. Miklós, Gárdos’ father, is diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis. Despite having six months to live, he strikes up a correspondence at random with Lili. It’s not really a spoiler to say that they don’t die, I hope, since obviously Gárdos is around to tell the tale. How can you not love a story like this? It’s the kind of against-all-odds type of romantic comedy fodder that is too good to be true (except, in this case, it is true).
For both Miklós and Lili, their letter-writing is essential to their rebuilding of self following World War II. Both endured horrible mistreatment at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and when they were “liberated” they were near death. This novel, then, is the story of them coming back—not just physically, but mentally. Gárdos captures in a microcosm this struggle for many Europeans who were involved not just in fighting but in survival during the war. So in addition to their physical recuperation, both Miklós and Lili need to find hope in humanity again.
The tenderness and touching misunderstandings offer a nice counterpoint to the more serious moments. For example, I loved when another one of Miklós’ correspondents pays a surprise visit to his hospital to declare her undying love for him and her intent to marry him. He smoothly pawns her off on the Don Juan of the hospital, claiming he only wrote the letters on Harry’s behalf because he has the best penmanship. Is it true? I don’t know, nr do a I care (it’s fictionalized, after all)—it’s fun.
As I mentioned to a friend while reading this, “This is what they did before online dating.” That is, Miklós first finds Lili by requesting a list of Hungarian women about his age, from about his hometown, who are also convalescing in Sweden. Then he writes them cold, sees who responds, and decides which ones he should keep as pen pals. As someone who, because of the time and place of my birth, never got much into letter writing (and, because of me, has never gotten into dating), I found this entire procedure fascinating.
Since the resolution of this story is foregone, we need a different source of tension. Gárdos introduces this in the relationships with the main characters and the particulars of the protagonists’ lives. There is some doubt with regards to whether Lili’s parents survived. Similarly, it’s not clear what Miklós and Lili will do once they are released from hospital. Miklós commitment to socialism recurs throughout the book, so it’s implied that he wants to join the cause in some way (and Gárdos does explain further in his afterword, but not within the story itself). Lili is more lukewarm on socialism. She has several friends who tug at her in different ways. The conflict among Judit, Lili, and Miklós and the question of the couple’s official religion provides enough tension through the climax of the novel.
I was surprised by how much I liked Fever at Dawn. I do like books set in/around World War II that are not about World War II per se. And I’m a bit of a sucker for sappy “based on a true story.” However, I was worried there wouldn’t be enough substance here. Fear not: Gárdos provides plenty in the way of characterization, philosophy, and turns of phrase. The setting is intricate, if not in description then in atmosphere. The story is a careful depiction of the combination of levity and gravity that must have permeated these hospitals full of concentration camp survivors: everyone is excited and happy to be alive, yet at the same time, so many that they knew were not as lucky. In this time, it is easy to lose hope—or to regain it. And so Fever at Dawn is a simple story, but it is a heartwarming one, and definitely one I enjoyed reading.