Fever at Dawn is based on letters sent between Péter Gárdos’ parents shortly after the end of the Second World War. When I saw it described as “whimsical, poignant and completely charming” in a review posted on Twitter, I knew it sounded like my kind of read. I didn’t know much more about Fever at Dawn except that its author is Hungarian and, having a few Hungarian friends, I’d been looking to include some Hungarian writers in my reading. Add to that its Swedish setting and I was thrilled when the publisher offered me an early proof copy to read.
In an over-crowded hospital ward in the summer of July 1945, Miklos is propped up against a pillow. He is writing a letter of hope. It doesn’t matter that Miklos is bruised and battered, that his skin shares the same colour as a greying pile of ash, or that the doctor told him “You have six months to live”. Because, now, for the first time since the war, he feels truly alive.
Miklos is thinking of things far more important than his health.
He is thinking that he would like to find a wife…
It would be easy to imagine that Fever at Dawn is a simple romance: a post-war romance between two young people, Miklos who’s twenty-five, and eighteen-year-old Lili. After all, despite Miklos’, shall we say, pessimistic prognosis, the reader has to believe there’s a happy ending, if its a story based on an exchange of letters between the author’s parents. But Fever at Dawn is also so much more than this.
For a start, Miklos doesn’t just write one letter of hope. He writes 117 of them. And that’s the moment when I realised that Miklos was going to be quite a character. He might be a poet and a romantic dreamer, choosing to ignore what his doctor (backed up by some X-rays and years of medical training) is telling him but he’s also pragmatic and looking to stack the odds of finding a wife in his favour. For some, this might seem calculating and yes, I would question why he continues some correspondence even after he’s made his choice of bride but he’s not wholly exempt from having to deal with the consequences of doing so. Besides, I found myself willing to forgive him because he manages to find a reason to live and you can’t help but feel the pure joy and escape he finds in all his scheming and letter-writing. Read more