This Devastating Fever

Sophie Cunningham

This Devastating Fever
Ultimo Press
7 June 2023

This Devastating Fever

Sophie Cunningham

Shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Award for Fiction 2023

Sometimes you need to delve into the past, to make sense of the present

Alice had not expected to spend most of the twenty-first century writing about Leonard Woolf. When she stood on Morell Bridge watching fireworks explode from the rooftops of Melbourne at the start of a new millennium, she had only two thoughts. One was: the fireworks are better in Sydney. The other was: is Y2K going to be a thing? Y2K was not a thing. But there were worse disasters to come. Environmental collapse. The return of fascism. Wars. A sexual reckoning. A plague.

Uncertain of what to do she picks up an unfinished project and finds herself trapped with the ghosts of writers past. What began as a novel about a member of the Bloomsbury Set, colonial administrator, publisher and husband of one the most famous English writers of the last hundred years becomes something else altogether.

Complex, heartfelt, darkly funny and deeply moving, this is Sophie Cunningham's most important book to date - a dazzlingly original novel about what it's like to live through a time that feels like the end of days, and how we can find comfort and answers in the past.?


Leonard Woolf – writer, publisher, colonialist, gardener, animal lover, and husband of Virginia – called his personal battle between desire and repression ‘this devastating fever’. Leonard is a major protagonist in This Devastating Fever, the first work of fiction from Sophie Cunningham in 14 years. That title, suggesting the presence and absence of sexual fulfilment in Leonard’s long life, also conjures the deadly post-World War I influenza pandemic and Virginia’s long illness with it. And of course, it resonates with our own pandemic, which has brought fever and affected much devastation.

This Devastating Fever is also about Alice, a Melbourne writer and teacher, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Cunningham. We meet her in 2020, struggling with an unfinished project, a novel about Leonard Woolf called ‘This Devastating Fever’. A first draft, completed in 2007 languishes. Research continues. Alice returns to her manuscript after the 2019 bushfires. Climate catastrophe dominates her mind and then Covid crashes in – writing becomes even more difficult and yet more urgent. Cunningham moves between time frames and locations, and between Alice and Leonard – in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was then, back to London, and into the Sussex countryside – and Virginia frequently appears too. Historical echoes and ghosts draw the past into the present revealing the cyclical nature of catastrophe and what it must feel like ‘to live inside history’, as Alice observes, after receiving her first dose of vaccine.

But what kind of book is Cunningham’s This Devastating Fever? The same question puzzles Sarah, Alice’s blunt agent, who worries about where booksellers will situate her client’s novel in store. Is it fiction? Is it nonfiction? Is it a biography of the Bloomsbury group? Or an account of Alice’s/Cunningham’s struggle to produce a novel about Leonard? The answer is that This Devastating Fever is all these things and none of them and more than these categories can explain. What I can definitively say is that This Devastating Fever is an ambitious, empathetic, funny and intelligent book. Cunningham understands something profound about the complex yearnings of the human heart, and her writing about the natural world is exquisite. In times of crisis, life and lust persist. Welcome back to the fiction section of the bookshop Sophie. We’ve missed you.

Joanna Di Mattia is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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