Angry and enthralling, this novel challenges the reader’s understanding of what a novel might be.
In the early years of this century, Sophie Cunningham began working on a fictional account of the life of Leonard Woolf. However, the narrative – as narratives sometimes do – eluded her in maddening ways for many years. Then 2020 delivered the strange and terrifying gift of a pandemic, which concentrated her mind and brought forth the marvel that is This Devastating Fever.
The main character, 21st-century Australian Alice Fox, is writing a novel titled This Devastating Fever, and it is her struggle to wrestle the material into novel form that dictates the shape. The writer Alice in some ways mirrors the novel’s author. The narrative tone generally is fairly traditional third person, past tense, but a metafictional conceit gives the pervasive feeling that the author, Sophie Cunningham, is in charge.
This is particularly the case in the playful footnotes, which clarify various interesting facts, even pointing out that a character is “fictional” in case the reader has mistaken it for a historical figure. The distinction between fiction and nonfiction is invoked early when Virginia and Leonard Woolf plan to dress up as bookshelves, one fiction, the other nonfiction. The narrative is bejewelled with such examples of sly humour, the cartoon of a marmoset on the cover of the book being a little clue to its comic elements.
When the ghosts of Virginia and Leonard visit Alice and others from some kind of afterlife, they create a wistful comedy. Alice asks them questions as part of her research for the book. Virginia uses Alice’s keyboard to type information, and then they go out into a greenhouse together where Virginia, “all jangly bones, stood beside a corpse plant, under a fiddle-leaf fig”. But the overall mood of the novel is dark, for the subject matter – explored in twinned periods of the early 20th and 21st centuries – is the state of the planet and the place of humankind within some possible infinite design.
In short sections headed by dates, the story swings elegantly between the two periods. There is no real suspense: it is obvious from the outset that Alice probably will not finish her novel, that the beloved fictional character “Hen” will die from Covid-19, that Alice’s relationship with her wife will endure. The fate of Earth remains ominously in doubt to the end, although the call of a powerful owl sounds a certain haunting note of hope.
The beauty of the natural world is rendered in ringing, vigorous, vivid prose: “a tall river red gum with a thinning crown and covered with burls, which wore its age with great dignity”. Against this are descriptions of the grisly details and effects of World Wars I and II. Leonard discusses with Alice the possibility of a third world war, and then dissolves the vision of horror by offering her a striped humbug from his pocket. The subject matter and the mood of the novel constantly oscillate, creating the effect of a kind of fever.
Alice worries away at her novel as she works as a teacher whose job is to mentor students who are also producing fiction. Is the whole business of writing fraught to the point of uselessness? Leonard has a comeback: “Writing is not so important in the greater scheme of things, however the act of writing and of reading can give us reason to live.” In the vast gloom and pessimism of This Devastating Fever, Leonard’s statement feels hollow. In moments of helpless frustration and despair, Alice has the impulse to shout obscenities at her students and tell them to just get on with writing. Words are, after all, powerful. In one footnote, the author comes forward in a forlorn and savage wail: “Australia. What a cruel and mean-minded country it often was.”
Humankind is revealed at its miserable worst as Alice struggles. She spends long hours researching her topic and travels to Sri Lanka where Leonard worked in the civil service. These sections are far from the more familiar literary world of Bloomsbury, which is dramatised in all its theatrical and sexual flourishes, as well as its many tragedies and horrors. The complexity of the tenderness between the Woolfs emerges in lyrical and graphic moments, offset by the playful invocation of a spirit world and nourished by the cool formality of the footnotes. In a rage, Alice emails her unsympathetic editor “an annotated Sex List” that gives 22 mini-accounts of “who fucked who” among her characters.
The range of this novel is vast. The catastrophe of the present holds Alice and the author in its grip: society seems to be falling apart and millions are suffering hideous deaths. Alice and her students meet on Zoom wearing pyjama pants and have “taken to drinking during class”. The “narrative arc” Alice hoped to discover for her novel is a meaningless fantasy. However, the book in the hands of the reader is completed, weaving past, present and future into a fluorescent literary pastiche outstripping the old episodes of Doctor Who that Alice likes to binge.
This Devastating Fever, with its mood of perpetual anxiety, its jests and its flaming bursts of hysteria, fills the reader with a heartbreaking sadness that lingers far beyond the final pages.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 as "Sophie Cunningham, This Devastating Fever ".
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