"The Great Fire"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte NOV 03, 2003)
Coming more than twenty years after her critically acclaimed Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard's latest, The Great Fire, is in most basic essence, a classic old-fashioned romance. The novel traces of the path of the protagonist, Maj. Aldred Leith and his love, seventeen year-old Helen, as they try to live out lives anew in the aftermath of the Second World War.
At the onset of the novel, Maj. Leith has just completed a two-year trek across China documenting the effects of war on the country. A son of a rich and famous novelist, Leith suffers from a cold and distant relationship with his father. His main attraction to enlisting as a soldier is the level of "classlessness" it promises. After China, Leith is assigned to Japan around the vicinity of Hiroshima to perhaps, conduct similar studies here. Leith takes up residence with the formidable Driscolls, a stern military couple from New Zealand, and soon enough is enchanted by their offspring: a boy of about twenty, Ben, who is wasting away from Ataxia and beautiful Helen, his sister and primary companion, the locus of Leith's romantic love and attentions. Gradually, over shared moments together, the couple grows ever attached to each other only to find increasing resistance to their union from her parents. Perhaps a little melodramatically, Ben is shipped away to California under the guise of new treatments, where he eventually passes away. Helen meanwhile is shipped to New Zealand by her parents who hope that time and distance will make the couple forget each other. After a long separation during which the romance is kept alive by poetically worded letters, the couple eventually reunites giving the novel a satisfying and fairy tale ending.
Interspersed in the narrative are details of Leith's friendship with an old war buddy, Peter Exley, whose life Leith once saved. Exley's constricting and timid life in Hong Kong, his tentative forays into friendships and romance are a delight to read often more so than the primary romance that runs through much of The Great Fire. The personal tragedies that war can inflict are played out better in Exley, a mild-mannered underdog who can never quite figure out life's purpose after having spent so long "waiting for the war."
"War had provided a semblance of purpose, reinforced by danger. Danger had been switched off like a stage light, leaving the drab scenery. And there they were at the barracks, he and Rysom, two years into peace and bored to death by it. Each must scratch around now for some kind of compromise and call it destiny."
A masterful wordsmith, Hazzard is at her best when describing the effects of time and place both in Hong Kong and Japan. Her sentences, compact and succinct, capture the local atmosphere brilliantly:
"The Hong Kong evening, with air like broth, was charged with Asia's unapologetic smells. Leith walked with Exley to a low-roofed tavern on the docks. Peter had discovered the place on his wanderings: the entry, open to the street, gave on the waterfront. There was the hot, stark electric bulb, supplemented by spirit lamps whose mild reek was agreeable. The plain front room just held the two men, the couple who served them, and the furnishings-quite as if it had been composed around them. They sat at a low table, on bamboo stools. There was a frequent passage of Chinese patrons into a back room, evidently larger, from which fast emphatic talk was heard, and high laughter, and some heroic clearing of lungs."
The imagery of heroism and rescue stand out in the narrative and beautifully reinforce the basis of the traditional romance. Young Helen and Ben lead isolated lives with literature often being their only entertainment and companions. Their talk too, is perforce mannered and overly formal. Helen initially sees Leith as an entertaining narrator, and their romance is also quite textbookish in nature, the two often addressing each other as "beloved." The Great Fire is also well accented with letters written both between Helen and Aldred, and between Leith and his friend, Peter Exley. In a modern age where e-mail is fast becoming the only written mode of communication, these communiqués serve to date the narrative very effectively.
Leith as a central protagonist treads high moral ground-despite falling in love with a seventeen year-old nearly half his age, he never beds her: "I'd developed a conscience," Leith explains. As a hero, he is so perfect-- endowed with his Victoria Cross (which he jokingly refers to as "the medal"), his bravery, and strength of character, that one begins to suspect that Hazzard is a little in love with him herself.
There is other romance of course that ultimately permeates The Great Fire -the darker one of war.
"There is cruelty beyond even that of battle," says a soldier, "You look the man in the eye, then coolly kill him. You drop a bomb and dissociate yourself from the consequences. Is it murder or is it war? Is war in any case murder?"
Hazzard's descriptions of the ambiguities of war and the dull fugue that its survivors must endure are skillful storytelling at its best. It is this image that will endure long after Leith and Helen have consummated their tender romance.
- Amazon readers rating: from 108 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Great Fire at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Cliffs of Fall: And Other Stories (1963)
- The Evening of the Holiday (1966)
- People in Glass Houses: Portraits from Organization Life (1967)
- The Bay of Noon (1970)
- The Transit of Venus (1980)
- The Great Fire (2003)
- Defeat of an Ideal (1973)
- Coming of Age in Australia (1985)
- Countenance of Truth (1990)
- Greene on Capri: A Memoir (2000)
- The Ancient Shore: Dispatched from Naples (2008)
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- Wikipedia page on Shirley Hazzard
- Middlemiss on Cliffs of Fall
- Complete Review on Greene on Capri
- The New York Times (authored by John Banville) review of The Great Fire
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About the Author:
Shirley Hazzard was born in Sydney in 1931. In her early years, she traveled the world with her parents due to their diplomatic postings. At sixteen, living in Hong Kong, she was engaged by British Intelligence, where, in 1947-48, she was involved in monitoring the civil war in China. Thereafter, she lived in New Zealand and in Europe; in the United States, where she worked for the United Nations Secretariat in New York; and in Italy. In 1963, she married the writer Francis Steegmuller, who died in 1994.
Since leaving the United Nations, to become a full-time writer, she has become a passionate opponent of the United Nations, detailing her opinion of its weaknesses in Defeat of an Ideal in 1973, and commenting on the Kurt Waldheim case in 1990 in Countenance of Truth. In Greene on Capri, she writes about her friend, the writer, Graham Greene.
She won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980 for The Transit of Venus. She delivered the ABC's Boyer lectures in 1984. These were later published in book form in 1985 as Coming of Age in Australia. The Great Fire is the winner of the 2003 National Book Award.
She is now an American citizen and divides her time between New York and Capri.