This Devastating Fever | Sophie Cunningham #AWWfiction

Epigraphs (3):


I very rarely think either of my past or my future, but the moment that one contemplates writing an autobiography…one is forced to regard oneself as an entity carried along for a brief period in the stream of time, emerging at a particular moment from darkness and nothingness and shortly to disappear at a particular moment into nothingness and darkness.

Leonard Woolf (1960)

Woolf went on to write five autobiographies that were published between 1960-1969, Sowing (1880-1904), Growing (1904-1911), Beginning Again (1911-1918), Downhill All the Way (1919-1939) and Journey Not the Arrival Matters (1939-1969).


Apart from Knox, and later Leonard Woolf in his novel, A Village in the Jungle, very few foreigners knew where they were.

Michael Ondaatje (1982)

The connection here is Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Ondaatje was born in Colombo, Ceylon in 1943. In 1948 Ceylon became a dominion (self-governing nation) of the British Empire. In 1972 the country was renamed Sri Lanka when they became a republic.


What a life he has led, and how he has led it!

E M Forster (1970)

Forster attended Kings College, Cambridge from 1897-1901. Leonard was at Trinity College from 1899. They were both involved with the Cambridge Apostles, a discussion group that evolved into the Bloomsbury set in later years.

Opening Lines:


When Leonard stood up he was taller than expected. After more than twenty years of marriage you would have thought Virginia would have the measure of her husband, but she did not. Leonard leaned towards her. Virginia held his face in hers and admired its deep lines. She found it rather marvellous that the two of them seemed to have grown tighter like this. Not just in spirit but appearance.

I chose This Devastating Fever for my November book group choice and for a little while I wondered if I had done a bad, bad thing. It took me about fifty or so pages to really get into the story and I feared a dud might be on my hands. (The fear of selecting a dud for book club is irrational, I know, as the duds or the controversial books often provoke the best discussions and the idea is to stimulate diverse topics and opinions, not just sit around saying how much we loved this book).

I won’t know until November what everyone else thinks, but in the end I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It certainly ticks the diversity in style/genre box.

Michelle de Kretser described this book as exofiction, which is apparently a French word coined about 2013 to describe the flourishing trend of books about famous people and real events within a fictional format. Muriel Steinmetz in L’Humanité | Thursday August 27, 2015 explained that “exofiction defines the novel by blurring (or at least reshaping) the boundary between fiction and biography, even by using more or less famous characters or by drawing inspiration historical accounts from various periods.

This Devastating Fever is exofiction (or bio-fiction as we more usually call it), but it is also metafiction and autofiction. Metafiction thanks to all the side comments about things like footnotes, writers block, editing and how to write a novel.

…death was considered a good way to keep people reading, but not necessarily a good way to finish a novel.

Autofiction thanks to the modern day character, Alice who could easily be Cunningham as they share so many things in common (see facts below). One of my favourite aspects of the book, were the times when Alice talked to ghost Leonard and ghost Virginia. This device allowed Cunningham to modernise their voices and opinions, injecting a playful, humourous narrative. Real quotes from their diaries and letters turned up in these conversations, but they also expressed their opinions on things that had happened after they had died.

Ghost Virginia was prattling…All the cures I was subjected to. Milk. Darkened rooms. Len mointoring my every move. So much rest I may as well have lain in a coma for half my living days. Being dead is hardly less restrictive, I can assure you. Now, to the matter at hand. I don’t have much time and I have several requests. Please stop turning me into a victim. Please don’t call me a lesbian. Or a feminist. Or whatever other labels you may have saved up for me….And I have a question….’Why are you writing about Leonard, when I was clearly the better writer? History supports my assertion here. Leonard really could be quite ponderous.’

Cunningham, in a stunning display of virtuosity, jumps between characters, real and fictional, time and place to create a story that encompasses colonial Ceylon and modern Sr Lanka, WWI, the Spanish Flu, WWII and the Covid-19 pandemic in Victoria, Australia.

I’ve been following Sophie Cunningham’s #treeoftheday instagram account ever since reading City of Trees in 2019. A collection of essays about her love of trees is a vastly different experience to This Devastating Fever – a novel that is and isn’t about Leonard Woolf. Yet her care and concern about our environment, with all its beauty and savagery, informs this book as much her previous work.

The moon was a bright crescent you could hand a hat on, its cold light picking out the muted smudge of greys and browns of a bogong moth. Its long fat body sat lightly on the earth. Alice picked it up carefully, making sure not to knock the dusty scales from its delicate wings, and put the moth high on the trunk of a tree. Wondered how it would find its way home. Once clouds of the moths had set off at dusk, night after night, flew high into the mountains.

Other themes and topics include: colonialism and empire, the role of literature in defining our experiences, realism and surrealism, whose history gets remembered, grief, loss and ghosts, trauma and madness, climate change and the pandemic.

It could have been easy for this story to slide off into a self-indulgent mess, instead I was seduced and bewitched. I had so much fun with this book in the end, and I hope my book group and you do too.


  • Some biographical details gleaned from Wikipedia to flesh out the fact from fiction in This Devastating Fever.
    • Sophie was Publisher at McPhee Gribble/Penguin for two years, then Trade Publisher at Allen & Unwin for ten.
    • First novel, Geography (2004), a book about sex.
    • 2005 spent time in Sri Lanka as an Asialink resident.
    • Bird (2008), second novel about a Buddhist nun.
    • 2008 -2010 editor of literary magazine, Meanjin.
    • In 2011, she was one of the eleven Australian women who established the Stella Prize.
    • 31 March 2020 zoom launch of Laura Jean Mackay’s The Animals in That Country for Scribe Publishing “She read The Animals in That Country in preparation for what she and the author decided to call the first Zoom book launch in the world“.
  • Leonard Sidney Woolf (25 November 1880 – 14 August 1969)
    • Ceylon Oct 1904 – May 1911
    • Married Virginia 1912
    • Published The Village in the Jungle (1913)
    • 1917 Hogarth Press began publishing.
    • Began a relationship with Trekkie Ritchie Parsons – née Marjorie Tulip Ritchie (15 June 1902 – 24 July 1995) after Virginia’s death. The relationship lasted the rest of his life.
  • Shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2023

Favourite Quotes: The first one is a comment on the long-term effects of our modern day texting and messaging habits.

Sometimes Alice would find herself wondering about the archives of the future when rather than the fulsome letters she spent her day reading there would be, at best, these stray assortments of fragmented messages and, at worst, no trace left at all.

The second one, thanks to the comment about children, resonated strongly with my own position.

New strains, dying forests, dying oceans, catastrophic floods, heat bubbles, disappearing glaciers, collapsing ice sheets, talk of war, actual war. Would it ever stop? It would never stop. Not in her lifetime. Not in the lifetime of the children she hadn’t had, but knew and loved nonetheless.

Writing Habits:

  • This Devastating Fever took 16 years to write.

Favourite Character:

  • Ghost Leonard – he was less stuffy and more lively than I imagine the real life Leonard was.

Favourite or Forget:

  • Definitely up there as one of my favourite, most satisfying reads of 2022.
Title: This Devastating Fever
Author: Sophie Cunningham
ISBN: 9781761150937
Imprint: Ultimo Press
Published: 1st September 2022
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 320
Dates Read: 5 October 2022 - 12 October 2022
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

10 thoughts on “This Devastating Fever | Sophie Cunningham #AWWfiction

    1. When MdK mentioned in it her intro for the author talk that the link takes you to, Sophie said it was new to her too. We’ve all learnt something new :- )

      I hope you have as much fun with this book as I did Lisa.


  1. You’d have to brave – or just David Lodge maybe – to attempt a fiction about someone as well known as Leonard Woolf. I’m glad you think she carried it off.
    Good cover. Though I would probably have been expecting rocket ships and a bit of pew pew action.


    1. First up, I had to duck, duck, go David Lodge, so therefore cannot compare his Author, Author or A Man of Parts with TDF. At least Cunningham has had better fortune with timing of publication than Lodge – no other biofictions that I know of, are doing the rounds atm for Leonard Woolf. I know we tend to disagree on biofics and historical fiction in general, so it’s probably safe to say that this is not a book for you Bill.

      I also had to duck, duck, go ‘pew pew’ – you would have thought that after surviving the teen years of two boys and Call of Duty & Fortnite, that I would know what the sound of lasers being fired would look like onomatopoetically, but I didn’t. I’m still stuck back in time with Batman’s ‘POW’ 😀


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