Jonathan Bazzi’s lauded memoir, Fever, is an intense, visceral vision of the fear of the unknown. What starts as a mystery illness—a fever that refuses to break—throws the reader into a delirious world of medical discovery and internalized emotional trauma. This is no romantic view of life in Italy; it is messy, rough and rewarding.
Alternating between their present day illness, laced with fear and paranoia, and reflections on their childhood in Rozanno (“the ghetto of Milan”), Bazzi takes us on an ever-deepening emotional spiral. What starts as panic and isolation, grows into a larger sense of dread, as both timelines bring us to a fuller understanding of their mental state.
First published in Italy in 2019, the spectre of Covid unexpectedly now hangs over the opening chapters. A mystery fever, sore throat, coughing, lethargy; symptoms we’ve all become far too familiar with. For Bazzi however, these symptoms lead them on a mission, pushing doctors to look deeper to find the true cause. But are they going insane? Is this all in their head? Bazzi is an untrustworthy narrator, as their fever-addled brain spins them tales that may or may not be true.
By the time the true diagnosis of HIV comes (hardly a spoiler as it’s all over the solicitations), it is almost a relief. The claustrophobic introspection of Bazzi’s fear is released to find the cold, deadening revelation.
“Before: I am healthy, I am thirty years old, I have my whole life ahead of me. After: I am HIV-positive, I have to get better, I will spend the rest of my life getting better.”
As a contemporary novel, Bazzi is quick to place their diagnosis into context, “My life is not over… All I have to do is come to terms with the loss of privilege” and Fever deals with the fall out of being HIV-positive in modern, working-class Italy.
It’s here that the alternate chapters of backstory really start to pay off. By preparing the reader with Bazzi’s own history (and the history of their neighbourhood, friends and family) we are ready for the emotionally and mentally uneven path to progress that they go on.
All of this would be nothing if Bazzi’s prose weren’t able to deliver the story, and it’s here they really excel. The text (translated by Alice Whitmore), is deceptively simple but transports you into their own troubled, frantic mental state. It is almost uncomfortable to read in its intensity. The alternating chapters of their childhood can be a sweet relief at times, and at others, add to the growing pressure.
As much as Fever is a novel about HIV, it is more a tale of mental health, dealing with historical pain and modern day pressures, like how to pay the bills when you work in the gig-economy but are wracked with pain and illness, or how internalized homophobia steers us on unseen paths later in life. Throw in some commentary on class and privilege in modern Italy and you have a heady mix.
Perfect for readers who want to sink their teeth into a meaty piece of queer literature. Fever may be Jonathan Bazzi’s first award-winning novel, but it certainly won’t be their last.
By Chad Armstrong
Jonathan Bazzi’s Fever is published in English on May 3rd 2022 by Scribe Publications. Order it now from your local LGBTQI+ or independent bookstore (or the usual online outlets).
Thanks to Netgalley for an advance review copy