Review: Gurmeet Kauron Sophie Cunningham

Sophie Cunningham’s Orbits

In Sophie Cunningham’s This Devastating Fever, tiny comets blaze across the pages. Connecting disparate histories, their orbits disrupt the order of time, a function of the novel’s non-linear form. 

Western thought has long demanded a discrete understanding of past, present and future. In Living on Stolen Lands, Ambelin Kwaymullina writes of colonial modes of time: 

A version of time
that is always carrying people away
from an unchangeable past
into an unknowable future
Giving the illusion of progress
regardless of whether
anything has changed.

This idea of time passing or flowing is challenged by the physicists, philosophers, and Indigenous cultures who perceive time as eternal. Dean Buonomano summarises this clash, writing that ‘presentism…states that only the present is real. Under presentism, the past is a configuration of the universe that once existed, and the future refers to some yet-to-be-determined configuration. Eternalism…states that the past and future are as equally real as the present.’ In physics, eternalism is also tied to the block universe theory: past, present and future exist simultaneously are and are as real as each other. Similarly, Jeanine Leane writes ‘Guwayu – a Wiradjuri word – means still and yet and for all times. Guwayu means all times are inseparable; no time is ever over; and all times are unfinished… In all First Nations languages, there is a word for all times.’ 

The push and pull between presentism and eternalism defines This Devastating Fever as it shifts between dual timelines, Leonard Woolf’s lifetime, from 1904 to 1969, and the world of a writer named Alice Fox in contemporary Australia. Spanning the tail end of the Victorian era to 2021, Cunningham’s dizzying novel spins around these two centres of publisher and writer, the latter a fictional character who draws on Cunningham’s own life. 

Time, grief and a writer’s life are intricately entwined in the novel’s threads. Alice grapples with the years it takes to research a novel, to make sense of it, until it suddenly and rapidly comes together in the midst of a once-in-hundred-year pandemic. Leonard and Alice’s worlds have permeable boundaries, giving readers access to the novel’s eternal universe – past, present and future happen all at once as we as move between ghosts, comets and history.   

Born in 1880, Leonard Woolf witnessed two world wars, the Spanish flu epidemic, the height of imperialism, and the demise of the British Empire. History remembers Leonard kindly. He was a member of the Fabian Society and the Labour Party, and his early political writing influenced the birth of the League of Nations. He was a prolific publisher and a long-time carer for his wife, Virginia Woolf. He was also British colonial administrator in Sri Lanka, and a Jewish man living in England. Leonard Woolf lived many lives – and This Devastating Fever pulls him into the afterlife. 

This Devastating Fever revolves around his courtship and marriage to Virginia, his political experience during the two world wars, and his life in Sri Lanka. Later, we witness his care for his wife, as well as a lifetime of death and grief. Most interestingly of all, the Woolfs reside in two timelines – their own world, and as apparitions in the future – Alice’s world. A linear understanding of time is challenged by the narrative structure as Imaginary Leonard and Ghost Virginia transcend temporal boundaries.

On the experience of temporality, James Harrington writes ‘we can experience only a small subset of reality together’ and that conceiving past, present and future in tandem is beyond human reach. Cunningham overcomes this limitation by writing in the third person, shifting between Leonard, Virginia and Alice’s consciousness, but never inhabiting the first-person narrative. This allows readers a bird’s eye view, as we witness time looping, fracturing, and unravelling for the characters. 

In Melbourne’s long lockdowns, time looped endlessly. To create a sense of ordered chronology, I recorded the number of kilometres I walked along the contours of the Maribyrnong River each day. We all moved through the hours of a circular clock, distant from one another, unable to meet in each other’s time zones. The novel narrates Alice’s pandemic experience through a familiar circuit of repetitions:

Yesterday, today, tomorrow, she woke at 1am, she woke at 3am. Some days she wondered if she would ever sleep again, but when she spoke to others – by SMS, phone, WhatsApp, Messenger, Zoom, or even in person from an appropriate distance down the dark hallway of an old convent where she rented a tiny office – she understood that no one was sleeping, not really, and that the bedrooms of Melbourne, of Australia, of London, of the world, were full of people turning to and fro…

Alice spends her lockdown days ‘working on books that were not This Devastating Fever’, and in 1939, as war looms and children are evacuated from London to the countryside, Leonard throws ‘apples over fences in the hope that a child might catch one’. Both characters find ways of coping through distractions, momentarily suspending belief of reality. The parallels between Alice and Leonard’s coping skills highlight how human experience echoes across time, and how brief compartmentalisation aids Alice and Leonard to escape their threatening realities.

In such moments of crisis, our perception of time can also fracture. A key relationship in Alice’s life is with Hen, whom she describes as ‘just a neighbour who doesn’t have anyone’, though we soon realise Hen is a parental figure to Alice. At some point, Alice becomes Hen’s carer, witnessing time splinter the person she knew:

Alice tried to explain that dementia was a form of discontinuous narrative. Tried to explain how she’d felt simultaneously fascinated and devastated as she watched new forms of logic assert themselves in her friend’s brain: words detached, language floated apart, yet some relationship, some tension, some bond, continued to organise the sounds the woman Alice loved into Hen-shaped molecules of meaning.

This disruption of consciousness breaks down the progression of time, halting the development of Hen and Alice’s relationship. As Hen’s speech and memory disintegrate, their relationship is compressed into the hours when Hen is lucid, even as these hours become fewer and fewer. Hen is moved into an aged care facility and her condition deteriorates further. When Alice tries to feed her, ‘Hen [sweeps] her arm across the table with sudden force. “Do. Not. Pat. Ron. Ise. Me.”’ Hen’s loss of control over her life is clear, when, despite her resistance at eating, she succumbs as she ‘gagged then swallowed. Opened her mouth once more’, reversing Alice and Hen’s roles as carers. Hen’s concept of the past unsettles as memories falter, highlighting the fragility of human consciousness.

Virginia too faces helplessness as a result of illness. Suicide attempts and severe mental distress mark her life: ‘Virginia refused to eat … her headaches were relentless’. Alice and Leonard share parallel fates as carers, as Virginia, like Hen, is eventually moved to a nursing home. Both Alice and Leonard deal with anxiety and guilt as they perceive themselves failing to care, feelings that are compounded for Alice living through a pandemic. Whilst Alice is overcome with sleepless worry about Hen, Virginia stops speaking altogether: ‘Leonard’s relationship with language fractured. Words floated apart’. This breakdown of language between the two is symbolic of time unravelling, a chasm widening. 

Leonard and Alice’s voices merge as they see language ‘float[ing] apart’ from their loved ones. This splitting is a profound loss; as writers, language as communion and as a meaning-making process is critical. For language to fade from their intimate relationships is to become stuck in the same moment, glitching, unable to process. 

The relationship between language and loss is also conveyed through digressions, used by Leonard to process Virginia’s death. Reading Leonard Woolf’s 1969 autobiography, The Journey not the Arrival Matters, Alice notes ‘it took Leonard almost a hundred pages to get to Virginia’s death, in a chapter titled “Virginia’s death”’. Cunningham includes Leonard’s own note on digressions from the autobiography: ‘for an autobiographer to force his life and his memories of it into a strictly chronological straight line is to distort its shape and fake and falsify his memories.’ By including these words, Cunningham points to digression as a form of reflective practice; that to meander is a way of  meditating on loss. Perhaps Cunningham’s choice of a non-chronological structure – digressing, jumping between moments – is also to signify the subjective experience of time and loss. 

Leonard and Virginia too become digressions of Alice’s subconscious mind, appearing as ghosts. As Alice works to finish her novel, she develops fever after being bitten by a leech on a walk after a flood. In a fever dream, 

Imaginary Leonard wandered in, a nebulous cocker spaniel trailing beside him, and offered Alice a cup of tea. 

‘Is it COVID?’ Imaginary Leonard asked. 

‘Leech,’ Alice said. 

‘The look on your face suggests you are also suffering from grief? Might that be true?’ Imaginary Leonard looked concerned. 

‘I miss Hen,’ Alice replied, ‘but I’m not imagining the leech bite. If their jaws get stuck the infections can be nasty.’ 

Like Hen’s dementia, the novel is also shaped as a discontinuous narrative, Imaginary Leonard and Ghost Virginia jumping between paradigms, rupturing the human experience of time. They are as real as Hen to Alice, narrative chronology collapsing as past inhabits the present. These vivid ghosts help Alice to fill in plot gaps, tighten the seams of the novel, appearing and disappearing swiftly. After her first vision of Leonard, ‘Alice woke, curled up on pebbles. Had she been dreaming?’ Some chapters later, Virginia’s voice in a stream-of-consciousness sprawls across several pages, ‘her manifestation … far more dramatic than Leonard’s ever were’, ‘Then, just like that, Ghost Virginia was gone’. We understand these fast-paced apparitions to be digressions of Alice’s creative mind, guiding her to finish the book. But they are also avatars of the past living in the present, symbolising that there is no end to history, but that it continues living and transforming, altering our behaviours and relationships. 

Around two hundred pages in, Virginia dies. Hen too dies before the pandemic is over. Symptoms of Virginia’s mental illness feature prominently before and after her death. Early on when Leonard courts Virginia, she becomes distressed, already feeling a suffocation at his insistence for love. She demands Leonard stop, alluding to her ultimate suicide-death: 

In the face of their dispute Virginia remained in control of her emotions. She walked down to the sea. It was flat and grey. Yet even on the dullest of days there was a sheen that tilted the grey into silver. When the sun came out, the water sparkled and reflected the blue of the sky. In boisterous weather it turned a dark and disturbed green. Foam surged, closer to the shore. One could spend an entire life, Virginia realised, watching the light change throughout the minutes that made up a day, the days that made up the seasons, the seasons that made up a year. The chalk of the cliffs caught colour, bouncing it out to sea: rose petal, steel. The water absorbed and shimmered with those same colours. Then there was the colour of the sky affecting the tones and texture of it all. Racing clouds smudging land, sky and sea. It was overwhelming, some days, the intensity of the light. One could fall into it. One only had to make a choice.

Virginia’s voice is intense, striking and alive, in keeping with her literary legacy. Her suffering as a woman with mental illness is also brought into view. Momentum builds in this chapter through the repetition of simple sentences as Alice ‘finished reading the sixth and final volume of The Complete Letters of Virginia Woolf’:

On 28 March 1941, Virginia drowned herself in the Ouse River.

Time collapses as Alice reads several archival texts with speed, repeating this sentence six times across the chapter, like an incantation or a prayer. The repetition not only creates a rhythm, but acts as a ritual for grieving; Virginia dies again when we speak of her, remembering that she was alive, remembering she was real and not a myth. Through the novel’s digressions and repetitions, time unknots, and the pain of human suffering shifts. 

There is a moment early on when Alice reads Leonard’s letters from his time as a colonial administrator, noting ‘moments of cringe that accompanied any reading of a writer from the olden days’. Alice’s cringe manifests as my deep discomfort when Leonard’s colonial life comes to life from the archives. 

We learn that Leonard’s poor exam performance at university, and again for the civil service entrance exam led him to become a colonial administrator in Sri Lanka: ‘Leonard Woolf, a third-rate citizen, a third-rate student, sent to do time in a third-rate colony’. Cunningham’s use of present tense breaks down boundaries with the past, and the reader is confronted with the world of the British Empire narrated through the white gaze. Cunningham faces the colonial and racist attitudes of the time head on for a significant portion of the novel. 

Whilst archival specificity breathes life into the Woolfs, in the Sri Lanka material, the insistence on historical accuracy feels oppressive and destabilising, in part because it conflicts with the playfulness of the non-linear narrative. Though there may be repetitions and loops in the expressions and effects of imperial power, there are also clearly linear chains of events and their consequences that are not considered in such a discontinuous narrative. There is a particular passage that continues to disturb: 

Various … correspondents tried to explain to Leonard both the hilarity and outrage caused by Virginia, her brother Adrian and others, when they blackened their faces, wore turbans and robes and claimed to be Abyssinian royalty. They headed to Paddington Station then, via a luncheon car on the train, continued to visit the Channel Fleet at Weymouth. A telegram had been sent ahead to the Admiral, demanding they be given a tour of the Dreadnought, the Royal Navy’s newest battleship. They were welcomed with a guard of honour and, as the navy did not have Abyssinian flag to hand, were compelled to raise Zanzibar’s flag instead. The royal party spoke with a combination of Swahili, Latin and Greek while inspecting the fleet. They asked for prayer mats and made various ceremonial gestures. During the visit, the ‘royals’ repeatedly showed amazement or appreciation by exclaiming ‘Bunga, bunga!’ Despite the absurdity of all this, the battleship’s commander, an actual cousin of Virginia and Adrian’s failed to recognise either of them. 

The prank was intended as a critique, a political action. Well, that was one version of events … Leonard failed to understand the point of any version of the story. What was so amusing about humiliating naval officers? Or dressing up as African royalty?

As a reader of the global majority, shaped by colonial encounters, these passages are jarring; they complicate my relationship to the literary legacy of the Woolfs, and to this novel. The proximity of colonial and racist attitudes is unsettling, especially as post-colonial Sri Lanka continues to grapple with the spectre of colonisation, and as we continue to witness the ongoing colonial project in Australia. 

My reaction to this passage was visceral, provoked, perhaps, by the immediacy of colonial voice: the use of ‘Ceylon’ for Sri Lanka throughout the book, but particularly by Alice; pages of English hypocrisies and racist attitudes; exoticized descriptions of Sri Lankan people and landscapes reminiscent of romanticised colonial views of the non-western world:

The atmosphere felt pagan rather than Christian. Perhaps that was it. Princesses and their attendants carried offerings of fruit and flowers. A simple act, but also a suggestive one. The uncovered breasts—and there were many of them—were large and full as if inviting a man to reach out and touch them, all the more spectacular for being viewed in candlelight. 

Elsewhere, Cunningham places Leonard within the context of the Bloomsbury Group, highlighting his progressive attitudes for the time; for example, Leonard’s novel A Village in the Jungle was written from the perspective of Sri Lankan characters, in contrast to his contemporary EM Forster’s A Passage to India, a book that is rooted in white experiences of the British Raj. Alice’s character too functions to highlight Leonard’s flaws, asking Imaginary Leonard difficult questions about his role in empire and giving him the space for digressive conversations. And whilst Cunningham’s intentions here may be to expose historical attitudes and to complicate Leonard’s character, I am still left questioning the centring of Leonard’s white gaze through which Sri Lanka is refracted and presented.

Cunningham also shows us Leonard returning to an independent Sri Lanka in 1960, attending social engagements and reliving a version of his past life. Towards the end of the trip, this past meets him head-on in the form of Mr. Wijesinghe. 

Mr. Wijesinghe approached the table. He reminded Leonard of an event that had taken place when he’d been a local administrator and Leonard a general administrator. It was during the time of the rinderpest epidemic. A diseased buffalo was wandering free and Leonard asked the owner of the buffalo, a village headman, to shoot it. The headman refused. Leonard then handed a rifle to Mr. Wijesinghe, grabbed a buffalo using considerable force, and led it into a range of the shot. ‘Shoot,’ Leonard had said. 

‘I shot that buffalo,’ Mr. Wijesinghe said. ‘You made me shoot a man’s livelihood, his transport, his friend, before his eyes. Why did you do this?’ 

Leonard sat quietly. 

‘Was it just, sir? Was it just?’ Mr. Wijesinghe was now a very old man. He was also an angry and insistent one. 

‘It was,’ Leonard said softly. But he was trembling. ‘But it was also cruel’. 

Later, he tells his host, ‘This… is why I left. We were paternalistic. We were severe. We treated your people like children’. 

What is interesting about this incident is how quickly Leonard is redeemed by his stated acknowledgment of the severity of his actions, and also how few consequences there are for him. Throughout the book, Cunningham depicts Leonard’s complexities honestly, including his hypocrisies and arrogance. Yet, when Leonard’s past crumbles into his present, he does not apologise to Mr Wijesinghe for his cruelty as a colonial administrator imposing Britain’s rule. Avoiding this responsibility lets Leonard off the hook and fans of Leonard can forgive him for being born into a particular era. It seems enough in the novel that he is at least a bit troubled, if not actually and directly sorry to the people of Sri Lanka. Collective responsibility is important for redemption and healing, and yet, it is missing in a universe where the past and present often collide and merge. 

There are glimmers of This Devastating Fever in Cunningham’s earlier work: Geography (2004) includes moments in Sri Lanka; Melbourne (2011) explores the evolution of a place over time; climate grief appears in all of her work; and Leonard haunts the pages of City of Trees (2020):

I feel this strongly: things are both random and connected, all the time. Leonard Woolf used to say “nothing matters”, by which he meant “everything matters”. All of it. The lot.

It is hard to see how a novel like this could have come together in any less time than fifteen years: apparently random events are pulled into patterns, brought into focus, developed into threads that make sense  of bigger histories. 

Towards the end of the novel, as Leonard is dying, he dreams of all the pieces of his life: Virginia’s brilliance, his harshness, his love for Trekkie (his second wife), all the houses he has lived in, and the changing shapes of history in his life:

He was on a headstand in a distant land, craning his neck to watch as a comet skated by, brilliant and bright. He reached out and grasped it by the tail. 

So, we return to comets. Comets as space debris, feared in past civilisations as threats of annihilation of the Earth, reminders of the precarity of human existence. Omens of death and disaster, the tiny comets in this book are a gesture towards the dying. Or they are the symbols of time continuing, as it always does, even in the aftermath of crisis. 

Multiple worlds exist in This Devastating Fever at once — eternalism’s past, present and future. We read from above, making assumptions based on our own perspectives, and the book shifts to fit the hands of the holder. More than anything, this view helps us to see the uncertainty of human civilisations, the fragility of our social structures, and our tendency towards disorder. 

Works Cited

Ambelin Kwaymullina, Living on Stolen Land. Magabala Books: 2020

Dean Buonomano, Your Brain Is a Time Machine.  W Norton & Company: 2018

Jeanine Leane, ‘Guwayu – For All Times’Sydney Review of Books, 2020

James Harrington, Time: A Philosophical Introduction. Bloomsbury Publishing: 2015

Sophie Cunningham, City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest. Text Publishing: 2020