Accessing the fevered truths of childhood

Feverish: A Memoir. Gigi Fenster. Victoria University Press. 

A note prefacing the first chapter of this intriguing book announces that it is "a work of nonfiction. Conversations are imagined, some characters combined and names changed, but everything that happens, happened".

The writing constantly shifts the reader's angle of perception: this isn't a story, but an exploration of the author's mind and memory as she seeks to understand the relationship of creativity to life experience. This may sound heavy but the text is remarkably light, floating from one aspect of the author's experience to another. It is also incredibly funny. Fenster's gift at writing comic dialogue alone makes this book worth reading.

Fenster set out to write a memoir about what it was like growing up in South Africa under apartheid. She found she could write "some bits and pieces, but nothing that ... sustained itself". How did an artist get inspiration? She did some research and came to the conclusion that for performance artists "The vulnerable, out-of-control body was eloquent. A mind out of control could be more eloquent. I decided to induce a fever in myself. Fever felt rebellious. It felt brave. It felt creative. Cutting edge. Also classic and kind-of-old fashioned."

As a child, Fenster went on family holidays to Swaziland. They felt freer there. In Swaziland, a name that depicts both a place and a mood, she read Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. She discussed the novel at length with her psychoanalyst father. It seemed to her that all the characters in the novel were in a fever; even Nelly Dean, her father contends, was suffering from the trauma of her upbringing. It is as if all the characters expressed their raw inner passions in their actions without restraint, whereas Fenster felt herself "vanilla" by comparison with her "velcro" friend who could freely open her mind and imagine.

Her vanilla self seemed to have something to do with the constant fear she felt in South Africa of imprisonment. It was also related to the Jewish history of her family, back in the shtetl of Eastern Europe, in emigration to the United States, in their flight to South Africa, until eventually they settled in Wellington, New Zealand. Fear, flight, she suggests, repressed feelings and the imagination. How could she write a memoir about growing up in South Africa still confined by this vanilla self? Fever was the answer.

She explores the practicalities of inducing fever, but it is eventually through her interactions with her family, her teenage daughters in particular, as well as her volatile velcro friend, that she overcomes the need for such a radical solution to her writer's block. She finds the means to return to her writing and complete a "memoir" that now relates more to the processes of the mind in preparing for writing itself.

There are implications in all the discussions in the book, about family history, about literature, about writing, even in the hilarious conversations with her velcro friend, that creativity, human development itself, has something to do with that part of us that is not vanilla.

It is the "fever" in us that makes for fresh observations of the world. Fenster's book is full of the wisdom of such insights as well as being a delightful recollection of childhood.

Win a copy

The Weekend Mix has three copies of Feverish: A Memoir, by Gigi Fenster, courtesy of Victoria University Press, to give away. For your chance to win a copy, email with your name and postal address in the body of the email and "Feverish" in the subject line by Tuesday May 8. 


 - Peter Stupples, now living in Wellington, used to teach at the University of Otago


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