Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos, trans. by Elizabeth Szász

This historical novel of the hard-won love of two Holocaust survivors is based on the experience of the author’s parents.

fever at dawn

Péter Gárdos’s Fever at Dawn is a novel based on the lives and love of his parents. It spans less than a year, beginning in July of 1945. In that brief time, Gárdos evokes worlds of love and pain.

Miklós is a 25-year-old Hungarian Jew, an idealistic journalist and dreamy poet, just released from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the end of World War II. In the opening pages, he’s aboard a ship that will take him and 223 other survivors to Stockholm, to convalesce in Swedish hospitals under the administration of the Red Cross. In that first scene, Miklós collapses on deck. He is very ill with tuberculosis and is told he has six months to live. Undeterred, he requests from the Swedish Office of Refugees a list of women survivors who, like him, are being nursed in Sweden. He asks that they be from his region of Hungary and under 30. From his hospital bed in a “barracks-like wooden hut,” he writes 117 identical letters to these women. He gets 18 replies, and gains several pen pals, but only Lili captures his heart.

Over the next several months, Miklós and Lili correspond, exchanging stories from their past lives and their respective hospital settings hundreds of kilometers apart. Miklós asks for a picture of Lili, but is careful not to mention that he has virtually no teeth. Both make new friends: Miklós has Harry, the resident Don Juan, and a larger group of loyal comrades, while Lili has two confidantes. These secondary characters contribute to the budding romance in various ways. Fragments from the lovers’ letters supplement a narrative lively with humor and antics–at the men’s dorm in particular–as well as the continuing calamity of the war. In December, they manage to meet: Miklós travels all day for a brief visit, hoping to declare his love and be answered.

Gárdos draws this story in part from his parents’ letters, which his mother presented to him after Miklós’s death. Fever at Dawn, told in Gárdos’s first-person voice, is a sweet love story framed by horror. The war is over, but the bad news continues to trickle in. The Hungarians living in Sweden are displaced in every sense, seeking loved ones, scraping joy out of a bleak day-to-day existence. Miklós is repeatedly reminded of his six-month sentence, his time dwindling; but he is determined, after all he’s survived, to marry.

At once heartrending and lighthearted, this romance covers enormous ground in love and war, joy and tragedy, humor and pathos. Fever at Dawn, with its historical backdrop, will win over many readers.

This review originally ran in the March 24, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 scraps of cloth.

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