Reviewed: This Devastating Fever, Sophie Cunningham, Ultimo Press
There’s a note at the front of Bird, Sophie Cunningham’s 2008 novel, which explains that she was at the time editing Meanjin and ‘working on a novel This Devastating Fever, about Leonard Woolf’s time as a colonial administrator in Ceylon, and the first years of his marriage to Virginia’. Fourteen years later she has, somewhat defiantly, delivered. ‘Call me paranoid but people didn’t think I could do it,’ she told the Guardian. ‘I thought, “Fuck you—I’m finishing this book.”’
The novel, Cunningham’s third, jumps between timelines. The notoriously entangled Bloomsbury circle is juxtaposed against Alice, a present-day Melbourne writer working on an unfinishable book about them (who, if you’re wondering, is decidedly not Cunningham, who’d like us all to stop agonising over these ‘generic boundaries’). As Alice drafts and redrafts, she is visited by Imaginary Leonard and Imaginary Virginia. Cunningham’s reconstitution of the couple as her own characters feels like a living, inventive way to break away from the ‘maybe millions of words’ written on both. Cunningham’s decision to cast this woman as a trenchant skeleton feels refreshingly close to something like leaving her alone.
Imaginary Leonard is more sternly taken to task. He visits Alice to chat, commiserate and possibly hit on her, and the darker side of his urge to manage (or, in his view, care for) is laid out: as an agent of British rule in Sri Lanka, he becomes inextricably implicated in the colonial violence that unfolded there. He is also fixated on ‘protecting’ Virginia, in a way that borders on censorship—and something more stifling. But Cunningham and Alice respect his intellect, open-mindedness and staunch political commitments, seeing in his ‘digressions’—in his autobiography, in his hallucinatory visits to Alice, in his life—a good-natured refusal to be hurried, a spirit very much at the heart of this book.
In the present, Imaginary Leonard scolds Alice for trying to write the ‘imperial’ kind of novel Virginia worked so dazzlingly to sidestep, crystallising the instinct behind Cunningham’s project. This point is driven home with a quote from Virginia, insisting on space for ‘the development by the average woman of a prose style completely expressive of her mind’. In this vein, Cunningham’s mind—at least as expressed in This Devastating Fever—appears highly preoccupied with critical reception. As Bernadette Brennan aptly observed of her 2019 essay collection, City of Trees, she operates from ‘a position of self-conscious privilege’. This novel seems to constantly pre-empt reader response, and it’s easy enough to imagine a tangible self-satisfaction exuding from some of the zingers (‘Just because [Alice] was experiencing what experts were calling climate grief did not mean that fucks weren’t clustering … did not mean that shit was not storming’.) But more profound ground is also being tilled: Alice is a carer for Hen, whose dementia is ‘a form of discontinuous narrative’ that prompts a crisis in Alice’s own understanding of story. As the pandemic hits, Alice’s consciousness ‘skid[s] and pool[s] all over the place’, her research appearing in footnotes and asides; and the sometimes-frantic voice that emerges knowingly resists the smoothening conventions of literary form. Drily pushing back against this rebellion is Alice’s agent Sarah, a stand-in for the ‘strange and weird’ publishing industry with which the novel, not without affection, is also very much in conversation.
The parallels tighten between the Woolfs’ and Alice’s lives: animals perish while historic wars and flus rage. Cunningham’s fierce love of nature is rendered in scenes of aching colour and her characters in both centuries grapple with the spiritual ‘fatalism and barbarism’ that attends systemic collapse. But contrary to the back cover’s chipper tagline, one era does not attempt to ‘make sense’ of the other—the kind of neat logic I believe Cunningham is pushing against.
Beyond the fuss over ‘who fucked who’ in the Bloomsbury set, she grants the Woolfs experiences that are dignified, human, painful. The novel is a reminder that it’s unwise to reify history as a tidy parable with easy heroes or villains. To those living in it, it has always been mostly about the present—‘both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time’, as Alice observes en route to her first Covid shot. In This Devastating Fever, Cunningham recreates this unstable arc in metafictional form: an unfolding line that never bends quite where we thought it might.