The Fever, by Megan Abbott, book review: Teenage girls and small-town hysteria


Doug Johnstone
Friday 13 June 2014 20:49 BST

Megan Abbott is, in my opinion, the best writer of contemporary thrillers working today. Her last two novels, The End of Everything and Dare Me, were pinpoint examinations of the modern teenage girl’s mindset, blended with nerve-shredding, noirish plots, creeping tension and deep characterisation. The Fever is even better.

While dealing with some of the same themes, this seventh novel is more expansive, more thoughtful, more ambitious and psychologically deeper than anything she’s written before, and that’s saying something.

Abbott’s focus is again small-town America and predominantly teenage girls. The story is told from three points of view within the same family: diligent student Deenie, her brother, Eli, who is an ice hockey star and school heart-throb, and their father, Tom, a popular teacher bringing up the two kids on his own.

One day Deenie’s best friend, Lise, is struck down by an unexplained seizure in class. This sends tremors of shock through the school, but that’s nothing compared with what happens when another girl is struck down by a similar event.

Panic and rumour spread like wildfire around the school and the town. Is it an airborne virus? A reaction to a recent vaccination the girls had? Maybe it’s to do with the polluted lake some of the girls have been swimming in against their parents’ advice, or maybe it’s a case of mass hysteria, psychogenic illness, as it’s known. Are the authorities taking it seriously, or covering something up?

Abbott handles this ratcheting up of tension, paranoia and fear with sublime skill. The prose throughout is sinewy and lithe, crawling with the menace of everyday craziness. In that respect, Abbott’s prose style is noticeably stripped back compared with her previous work, as clean and clear as a mountain stream, and if anything that has increased the emotional impact of the story.

With The Fever, Abbott is still telling the story of teenage girls and their complicated friendships, that moment on the cusp of their lives when they’re no longer girls but not quite women either. The scenes between Deenie, Lise and their friends are often squirm-inducing in their observational accuracy.

But it feels as if The Fever has a more panoramic vision. Eli’s voice, quietly confused about the burgeoning sexual world around him, is heartfelt and honest, while in Tom, Abbott has succinctly nailed the bittersweet melancholy of watching your children grow up and away from you.

The cumulative effect of these intertwined narratives is to paint a pitch-perfect portrait of a community under immense stress. The author’s themes of mass hysteria, panic and fear couldn’t be more modern, while also being deeply rooted in our primal past. This is a terrifying, and terrifyingly real, dissection of modern life.

Doug Johnstone’s new novel, The Dead Beat, is published by Faber & Faber

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