BOOK REVIEW: Apocalypse darkens Meyer novel
Reader reaction has been ‘phenomenal, greater than for any other of my books’, writer says of risky topic
FeverDeon MeyerHodder & Stroughton
Internationally acclaimed crime writer Deon Meyer has taken, "a calculated risk" in producing a doorstopper of a novel about a postapocalyptic SA that will raise a fever almost as dangerous as that of his title.
Reader reaction is beginning to pour in "and so far, it has been phenomenal, greater than for any other of my books", he says. The relief in his voice is palpable. He had to convince his more than 30 international publishers and his agents that Fever was worth taking a chance on.
Several of his books, such as Trackers, have been standalone titles without his legendary character police detective Bennie Griessel. But Fever has broken new ground.
It’s about an almost unrecognisable SA, ravaged by a global virus that has wiped out 95% of the world’s population. Packs of dogs, turned feral by hunger, attack the few remaining humans. Marauding gangs hunt and ambush survivors for their food, guns, cars and fuel.
The main characters are middle-aged Willem Storm and his 13-year-old son, Nico, who are visiting the Vredefort Dome when the virus strikes the father. They seek refuge in deserted towns and lie low as Willem fights the fever.
After he recovers, they drive across a desolate SA, searching for a place, a community in which they can begin to rebuild their lives. Eventually, it falls to the visionary, intellectual and compassionate Willem to create it. This, he does at Vanderkloof, in the Karoo, a place Meyer, who has travelled SA extensively by motorbike and car, says, "made sense in terms of the logistics. It has a dam, the possibility of hydroelectric power, and is on a hill with only one road in and out of it — vital for defence."
Father and son meet Hennie Fly, a pilot with a battered Cessna on their travels. Willem gives him pamphlets to drop, urging people to make a new home at Vanderkloof, renamed Amanzi, Nguni for water.
Soon the weary, ill and weak are struggling up the hill in search of comfort and life. Thousands of them. They range from bakers to bricklayers and teachers. Characters, which Meyer has always excelled at creating, begin to people the community. They range from Birdy Canary, an engineer who hopes to get the dam’s generator working again, to Joburg psychologist Nero Dlamini who sets to work on people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nkosi Sebego, a hellfire-and-brimstone pastor pitches up, as does the exquisite Sophia Bergman, a farm girl who can run like the wind and shoot a crossbow like no other.
The mysterious Domingo has some sort of military background, is tattooed, always hides his eyes behind sunglasses and builds up the strong defence force necessary to beat off attacks from the roaming killer bands. Domingo persuades Willem to take the fight to the criminals and on one sortie, they discover seven naked women, bound and imprisoned for the gangsters’ use. They are shepherded to Amanzi where the townspeople clasp them to their collective bosom with food, shelter and care.
It marks a turning point in the town’s life for it suddenly realises the good that lies within them and the evil without. It binds them together and creates a sense of identity that, hardly surprisingly, has been lacking in a community created by disparate people from across southern Africa, including Botswana and Namibia.
As the book covers a five-year period, people begin to arrive with reports of the seas being replenished with fish and of endangered wild animals growing in numbers as they are now free to roam. But there are also stories of what sound like helicopters whirring overhead, of bright lights that flash down from so high in the sky they are impossible to identify.
Peddlers venture over the Cape’s mountain ranges and return with tales of a holocaust as Koeberg nuclear power station is seen smothered in towering black smoke plumes. This forms a dramatic backdrop to the novel’s central themes, "about the coming of age of Nico, the relationship between a father and a son, and rebuilding a society without having to destroy all the infrastructure first", says Meyer.
He chose a virus to wipe out most of the planet’s people instead of an asteroid, "as that would have been too catastrophic", he says.
The environment, and the damage humans inflict on it, is as much a character as the novel’s humans. "This is due to my concern about the state of our world today," says Meyer.
There’s a Joburg restaurant in the book where, before the fever, people could eat as much as they wanted to from a buffet. "We had one near us in Stellenbosch with the same principle. The owner closed it. Humans are, by nature, greedy." Meyer read extensively while writing this more than 500-page book. The bibliography includes Sapiens — A Brief History of Humankind, and The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch.
Interestingly, as the years pass, some people in Amanzi begin to miss the modern world — with its pressure-cooker lifestyle, modern gizmos and fast food — less and less.
Relationships are the most important things ... yet we're connecting less
"I wanted to present readers with a dilemma about the kind of world we inhabit because of the price we pay for modern society with all its mod cons and gadgets," Meyer says.
"Personal relationships are the most important things in life, yet we’re connecting less and less. Friends are not the number of followers we have on Twitter." The narrator of Fever is Nico, whom the author has aged 47, "to give him wisdom and experience. Readers ask themselves what they would have done in Willem or Nico’s place."
The novel’s first sentences are: "I want to tell you about my father’s murder. I want to tell you who killed him and why. This is the story of my life. And the story of your life and your world too, as you will see."
Meyer stepped out of his comfort zone to write what he calls, "this adventure thriller. If people want to call it postapocalyptic they can, but neither I, nor my readers, care about genre. Reviewers tend to do so."
Some have described the story as dystopian. I disagree and so does Meyer. "It could even be utopian," he argues.
He wrote the book, "because I had a story that was worth telling in terms of entertainment value". In that telling, Meyer has succeeded spectacularly.